Germany’s president apologized Monday for his country’s multiple failures before, during and after the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics, joining his Israeli counterpart and relatives of 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian gunmen at the games 50 years ago.
The anniversary ceremony at Fuertenfeldbruck Airport outside Munich – the scene of a failed rescue attempt that killed nine Israeli athletes, a West German police officer and five of the attackers – came days after an agreement ended a long-running compensation dispute. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Israeli President Isaac Herzog laid wreaths at the site.
Last week’s deal led to relatives of the dead athletes threatening to boycott the anniversary. They will receive €28 million in compensation, a significant increase over the initial offer of €10 million.
As part of the agreement, Germany agreed to acknowledge the failure of the authorities at the time and to allow German and Israeli historians to review the events surrounding the attack.
“We are talking about a great tragedy and a triple failure,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. “The first relates to the preparation of the Games and the concept of security, the second to the events of September 5 and 6, 1972. The third failure begins the day after the attack: silence, denial, and forgetting.”
Anki Spitzer, the widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer, said in remarks to her late husband “Although we have finally, after 50 years, reached our goal, at the end of the day you are still gone and nothing can change that.”
“Everyone is now asking me if I’ve finally felt closed off,” she said. “They don’t understand that there will be no closure. The hole in my heart will never heal.”
Before the dawn of September 5, 1972, eight members of a Palestinian group called Black September climbed over the unprotected fence of the Olympic Village. They stormed the building where the Israeli team was staying and killed wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossi Romano.
Some Israeli athletes managed to escape, but nine were captured. The kidnappers demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinians held by Israel and two German leftist extremists in West German prisons.
‘We can’t make up for what happened’
The attackers demanded a plane and a safe passage to Cairo. After a day of tense negotiations, the attackers and their hostages were allowed to leave on two helicopters for Fuerstenfeldbruck.
Snipers fired at the airport. The attackers threw a grenade at one of the helicopters carrying the hostages, which exploded and shot the hostages in the other helicopter.
The Olympics were suspended for 34 hours but then resumed, with then-IOC President Avery Brundage insisting that “the Games must continue”.
Steinmeier acknowledged that politicians today “did everything to return to business as usual as quickly as possible”.
“We can’t make up for what happened or what she went through in the way of resistance, ignorance and injustice,” Steinmeier told relatives of the victims. “This embarrasses me.”
“As the Head of State of this country and on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask your forgiveness for the insufficient protection of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich and the inappropriate decision thereafter; because what happened can be said.
The compensation settlement includes payments that have already been made. Immediately after the attack, Germany made payments to the victims’ relatives amounting to about 4.19 million marks (about 2 million euros or dollars), according to the country’s interior ministry. German news agency dpa reported that in 2002, surviving relatives received an additional 3 million euros.
Steinmeier pointed out that Palestinian militants and their Libyan aides were directly responsible for the killings, and said that “it is very bitter that there is not a word of sympathy nor a word of remorse from the political representatives of these countries today.”
During his recent visit to Berlin, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sparked outrage by refusing to condemn the 1972 attack and saying it could refer to “50 Holocausts” by Israel.