Germans seek pardon for 1972 Munich attack

Germany has sought “pardon” from the families of the victims of the Munich Olympic attack 50 years later, admitting responsibility for a string of failures that led to the deaths of 11 Israelis.

“As Head of State of this country and in the name of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask you to pardon the lack of protection for Israeli athletes at the time of the Olympic Games in Munich and the lack of clarification after that,” said President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the attack by Palestinian gunmen on the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The attack, linked to the Palestinian armed group “Black September”, shocked the world with large parts of it shown live and watched by millions of viewers.

Last night, the German president admitted it was a “shame” that it took Berlin five decades to agree to compensate the bereaved families of Israeli victims.

“It took 50 years to reach this agreement in recent days,” he said, standing alongside his Israeli counterpart, Isaac Herzog.

In a separate ceremony this morning in the Olympic Village where the Israeli team was staying, Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter apologized for the “serious mistakes” made by the Games’ officials.

“I’m so sorry and I apologize for the fact that after the attack, what humanity could have demanded was simply not done – admitting mistakes and taking responsibility for them.”

Anki Spitzer, widow of slain Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer and Ilana Romano, widow of Israeli weightlifter Yosef Romano, gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack

A row over Berlin’s financial offer previously to victims’ relatives threatened to spoil the party, with families initially planning a boycott.

However, a deal was finally agreed on Wednesday, offering €28m in compensation.

It also witnessed, for the first time, the German state’s acknowledgment of its “responsibility” for the failures that led to the massacre.

What happened on September 5, 1972?

The attack began in the early hours of this morning, when eight gunmen from the Palestinian armed group Black September broke into the apartment of the Israeli team in the poorly protected Olympic village in Munich, shot two people, killed two and took nine Israelis hostage.

West German police responded with a failed rescue operation in which the nine hostages were killed, along with five of the eight hostage-takers and a police officer.

An armed police officer in the athletes’ village during the incident

The Olympics were supposed to showcase the new Germany, 27 years after the Holocaust, but instead they opened a deep rift with Israel.

Ten years ago, in 2012, Israel released 45 official documents on the killings, including particularly declassified material, which criticized the performance of the German security services.

The reports included an official account from former Israeli intelligence chief Zvi Zamir, who said that German police “did not make even the slightest effort to save human lives.”

what happened?

The armed attackers demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, as well as the radical German Red Army faction fighters Andreas Baader and Ulrich Meinhof, as well as a plane bound for the Middle East.

An initial rescue attempt was called off when German police realized it had been broadcast live on television.

The authorities then agreed to transfer the attackers and a number of hostages to the airport.

There, another rescue attempt failed as a gun battle broke out at Furstenfeldbrook Air Force Base.

The air base battle finally ended when the surviving militants were captured. At the end of the bloody 24-hour standoff, 11 members of the Israeli team were killed along with a German police officer and five Palestinian gunmen.

The long battle for compensation

Over the years, relatives of the victims of the attack have struggled to obtain an official apology from Germany.

They also wanted access to official documents and compensation beyond the initial 4.5 million euros offered.

More recently, two weeks ago, relatives of the victims said they were offered €10 million – including €4.5 million already awarded.

“I came home with the coffins after the massacre,” Anki Spitzer, whose husband Andre Spitzer was killed in the hostage-taking, told AFP. “You don’t know what we’ve been through over the past 50 years.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said the bereaved relatives had “hit a wall” over the years whenever they tried to raise the issue with Germany or even with the International Olympic Committee.

“I think there was a tragic suppression here,” he said, noting a series of failures that were “inhumane and incomprehensible” such as “the fact that the hostages were being led to slaughter and the games continued.”

He was referring to a decision by then-IOC President Avery Brundage, who declared that “the Games must continue” after only an initial suspension.

President Herzog expressed the hope that the agreement on compensation would “put this painful episode in the place of recovery”.

“I hope from now on we will continue to remember, recall and most importantly reaffirm the lessons learned from this tragedy, including the importance of fighting terrorism for future generations,” he said.

Tomorrow he will also deliver a speech in the Bundestag and visit the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where his late father and former Israeli President Chaim Herzog were among the liberators as an officer in the British Army in 1945.

Additional reporting by AFP