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51 years later, Germany has a panel to review the Munich Olympics hostage massacre

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Germany is taking a long-awaited step toward accounting for a tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS")

JIM MCKAY: The peace of what has - would have been called the serene Olympics was shattered just before dawn this morning, about 5:00.

BLOCK: That was ABC sportscaster Jim McKay at the Munich Olympics, September 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The scene in the Olympic Village today became the symbol of man's inhumanity to man as an organization called the Black September movement, a Palestine guerrilla organization, scaled the fences of the Olympic compound and, with machine guns blazing, entered the Israeli housing compound, killed two men and are still holding hostages.

BLOCK: By the next day, all of the Israeli hostages had been killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They've now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.

BLOCK: Germany's failures before and after the '72 Olympics, both its actions and inactions, will now be examined by a commission of historians. Among them, Michael Brenner - he's professor of Jewish history and culture at Ludwig Maximilian University, and he joins us from Munich. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL BRENNER: Hello, Melissa.

BLOCK: So much about what happened in '72 seems to me to be already known - extremely lax security at the games, warnings that were ignored, a horribly botched response by German authorities in an attempted rescue that ultimately led to all the hostages being killed. What is the main question that you still have?

BRENNER: The main question I would say is - why that great failure, which nobody really can totally explain until this day? And the - I would say the other question is - we want to look not only into the Olympics and the failure around the massacre in September of 1972, but there was a prehistory, which many people forget. There were attacks in Munich in February of 1970 already on Israeli airplanes, on the Jewish old age home where Holocaust survivors were killed. Most people forgot that. And still, Germany - Munich was not prepared for a terror attack in 1972.

BLOCK: Yeah. And one question that a number of people have voiced is, you know, was Germany's role pure incompetence or did the outcome in Munich really reflect a deeper callous disregard for the lives of Jews?

BRENNER: Well, you have to understand the 1972 Olympics in Munich were planned as a contrast to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which was the one previous Olympics in Nazi Germany. And they should be light Olympics. You could see it in the symbols in the Olympic stadium, in the clothes, in everything. And one of the results was that the German politicians and people responsible for the games decided not to have really much police presence, and we know that was a terrible mistake. The Israelis actually warned the Germans before, but it didn't help.

BLOCK: You know, the families of the Israelis who were killed and the athletes who survived have been pushing for accountability for a really long time. Germany only offered its first apology last year on the 50th anniversary of the attack. What do you think it says that it took so long for Germany to apologize and to set up this commission?

BRENNER: I think this is one of the question the commission actually will have to deal with - why did it take so long? And you may have psychological reasons like shame, embarrassment, guilt. But these are not enough. And I'm very much looking forward to see not what happened on September 5, 1972, but what happened in the 50 years after it, or what did not happen and why.

BLOCK: Professor Brenner, you specialize in German Jewish history. What's your thinking about where this commission and this chapter fits more broadly?

BRENNER: I think it is part of something Germans are very proud of, namely facing their own past. Now, of course, I refer to the Nazi past. This is a different chapter, but it is also part of a very complex relationship between Jews and Germans. And if I may add, as someone who grew up Jewish in Germany after World War II as the child of Holocaust survivors, I remember very well the days of September 1972. We were very proud as a Jewish family in Germany that there was an Israeli team coming to Munich, coming to Germany.

BLOCK: How old were you at the time?

BRENNER: I was 8 years old, and I was really looking forward to my first Olympics. And we had actually just come back from a visit to Israel with my parents, visiting family. And it was a huge shock for my family as well.

BLOCK: What do you remember of your own reaction to what was going on? You were so young - 8 years old.

BRENNER: Yeah, of course, you remember what you experience as a child. I remember the picture in the TV of one of the terrorists with a hood over his head and then, of course, those bloody scenes at the airport. And it left a big impression on me.

BLOCK: That's Professor Michael Brenner. He's one of the historians who'll be examining the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He directs the Center for Israel Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. Professor Brenner, thank you so much.

BRENNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.