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Monday, December 10, 2007

The redemption of Germany... and perhaps the Olympics

Maybe it's just me, but did anyone else experience a momoent of dis-ease by the recent announcement that the German city of Munich is bidding to host the 2018 Winter Olympics?   

Look, no hard feelings and all, but you have to admit that there is more than a little emotional baggage attached to the potential reunion of the Olympic games and that particular country / city.

To be clear, I'm not absolutely saying that Germany should never host another Olympiad.  But with all the other German cities that would be perfectly suitable for both summer and winter Olympic games... why Munich? 

And yes, as will soon be made clear, perhaps Germany has used up its second chances to host the Olympic Games.

I don't think I need to go into too much detail about the tragic events of the '72 Olympics with the readers of this site.  There is plenty of information out there that covers the events quite clearly.  But I think it is worth reviewing certain aspects of that Olympics which are often glossed over when discussing how such a tragedy could have happened and what happens in the aftermath.  In my opinion, these less-discussed issues should bear heavily on the decision to grant (or deny) Germany (in general) and Munich (specifically) the chance to host another Olympics.

The 72 games were the first games held in German since the overtly politicized 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by the Nazis.  The return of the Olympics to Germany in '72 was supposed to provide a bit of redemption from many of the militaristic images still lingering from those earlier games held before the outbreak of WWII.

The Munich Olympics were also supposed to be especially poignant since less than 27 years after the Holocaust, Israel was sending a delegation of athletes and coaches - many of whom were children of survivors - to a site less than 10 miles from the Dachau concentration camp (the Israeli team visited Dachau and laid a wreath before the opening ceremony of the games).

In advance of the '72 games, the German Olympic committee asked a forensic psychologist maned Dr. Georg Sieber to come up with a detailed list of 'worst case scenarios' against which they might need to defend the Olympics.  His response, entitled 'Situation 21', was flatly rejected as "preposterous" by the committee, yet it predicted with chilling accuracy the events that would unfold.

Despite the infiltration of terrorists into the Olympic Village, the murder of two members of the Israeli team and the ongoing negotiations between the Black Septemberists and German police in the heart of the Olympic Village, it didn't occur to the German Olympic Committee to suspend the games.  Incredibly, the Olympics continued for almost 12 hours after the first athlete was murdered before an outcry forced the Olympic committee to reluctantly halt the competition.

One of the major obstacles faced by the German authorities in dealing with the crisis was the lack of special forces trained in anti-terror tactics.  The German Interior Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, flatly refused Israel's offer to send a special forces unit to Munich (and now denies that such an offer was ever made), despite the fact that the post war German constitution forbade (and still prohibits!) German Army units from operating on German soil, leaving local police forces to deal with the crisis.  This would still be the case in 2018, although many police forces now have improved anti-terror capabilities.

After the remainder of the hostages were killed in the botched rescue attempt, instead of canceling the remainder of the games, the German Olympic Committee chose instead to hold a memorial ceremony the following day.  The hastily arranged memorial was attended by 80,000 spectators and 3000 athletes.  After a massacre of such horrifying magnitude it would have been a fitting occasion for the announcement that the games would be canceled.  Instead, IOC President Avery Brundage gave a speech in which he made almost no reference to the murdered athletes and instead spoke about "the strength of the Olympic movement".

Despite a decision by the German Government and Olympic Committee that all national flags would be flown at half staff during the memorial ceremony, the Soviet Union and the Arab countries participating refused to lower their flags.  The German Government and Olympic committee allowed these flags to be flown above the rest throughout the memorial without comment.  Carmel Eliash, a relative of one of the slain Israeli athlete, collapsed at the ceremony from a heart attack and died on the spot. 

The decision to continue the games at all after the tragedy was a callous move that clearly placed more value on economic considerations and 'fairness' to the surviving athletes than on the deaths of the innocent Olympians (or the feelings of their host country; Israel). 

To underscore the German Olympic Committee's feelings on this, during a soccer match between West Germany and Hungary a few days later, some spectators unfurled a banner that read "17 dead already forgotten?".  Olympic security moved in immediately, confiscated the banner and expelled the offending spectators.   A Dutch athlete, Jos Hermens, summed it up best when he said,  “You give a party, and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party, you go home. That’s what I’m doing.”

Less than two months after the massacre, A Lufthansa plane was hijacked by PLO terrorists.  The three surviving Black September Palestinians who took part in the massacre in Munich who were sitting in German prison awaiting trial were immediately handed over by the German government.  Many believe that the uncharacteristic lack of violence in this particular hijacking combined with the speed with which the German authorities agreed to hand over the Olympic terrorists is a strong indication that Germany colluded with the PLO to hijack the Lufthansa plane in order to get the inconvenient terrorists off of German soil before they could stand trial.  It was widely feared that the full extend of Germany's culpability in the Munich tragedy would come out at the impending trial.

Several relatives of the murdered Israeli athletes have subsequently approached the Olympic committee about establishing a permanent memorial to the Israeli Olympians who were slain, but have been met with a blanket and unconditional refusal.  It was feared that such a memorial would  “alienate other members of the Olympic community.”

Which brings us to the discussion of one of the newer members of 'the Olympic community'; the Palestinian Authority.

An athlete can be banned for life from Olympic competition for using any illegal drugs or any of a long list of banned substances (some as benign as cough medicine).  Yet the Palestinian Authority (not even a country!) which is still ruled by people who who were members of the very same terrorist organizations that funded and carried out the massacre at the Munich Olympics, is allowed to send athletes to participate in the Olympics.  Maybe these are the members of the Olympic Community that the committee is worried about offending.

I guess it's OK to invite Charles Manson to dinner, but it's considered bad form to mention the Tates or the LaBiancas.

Additionally, it is a matter of record that the payments for the Munich attack were arranged personally by Mahmoud Abbas (AKA Abu MAzen), the current President of the P.A.  Perhaps this will be the uniform of the Palestinian Biathlon team at the 2018 Munich Winter Olympics:


OK, maybe that was an uncalled-for level of snarkiness, but I couldn't resist considering that the man who funded the attack on Munich is likely to still be in charge of the PA when it sends its team to the 2018 Olympics.

Look, I can understand that 1972 was supposed to offer Germany a chance to redeem itself from its militaristic past.  The world certainly wasn't expected to forget the Nazi images of the 1936 Olympics or the propaganda use to which that Olympiad had been put by Hitler.  But it was obviously hoped by many that it might show the world that a new Germany had emerged from the ashes... a Germany that was worthy of the world's trust and confidence.

But if so, what exactly is the 2018 Olympics supposed to do for Germany and Munich?

Is it supposed to restore the world's confidence in Germany's ability to host a safe, wholesome Olympiad?  If so, there are many other cities other than Munich that could serve this role.  Although, as already noted there are many strong indications of Germany's legal and tactical inability to adequately protect the Olympic games, as well as their historic willingness to comply with the smallest demands of terrorist organizations in the midst of a crisis.

But most importantly, if the German Olympic committee thinks that having Munich host another Olympiad will somehow help people forget about the tragedy of 1972, that is truly a shameful goal.  Just as the German government understands that nothing should ever be done to try to soften or mitigate the memory of the Holocaust, it is unthinkable that the German Olympic Committee should attempt to redeem Munich at the expense of the memory of 11 murdered Israeli athletes.

Personally, I would only endorse Germany as host to another Olympic Games if there were a guarantee that the center-piece of the opening ceremonies would be a fitting memorial - complete with all national and Olympic flags being lowered -  for the slain Israeli athletes and coaches.  And any country(s) whose delegation refused to lower their flag and/or attend the opening ceremony would be banned from competition. Certainly the murder of Olympians at the Olympic games is something that all participants can agree is worth pausing to remember, no?

In this way, not only would Germany be able to make strides towards redemption... but so too would the Olympic Games finally make small steps towards living up to its stated goal of "...bringing people together in peace to respect universal moral principles". 

Sources:  Most statistics and facts contained here were taken from here.  Lest anyone think this source is overly sympathetic to the Israeli view of events, it should be noted that of the scores of references to those who planned and carried out the massacre in Munich, the terms ' hostage takers', Fedayeen', 'attackers' and 'guerrillas' appear far more often than the more standard (and correct) word; 'terrorists'

Posted by David Bogner on December 10, 2007 | Permalink


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David - very clearly and well written. i had known about the munich olympics, but when i saw all the details listed here in black and white - well, the reactions are horrific. why would another city in germany be better? they had their second chance, i don't see why they deserve yet another.

Posted by: mata hari | Dec 10, 2007 7:54:15 PM

You left out another villain in the massacre:
Avery Brundage. It was he who refused to boycott the 1936 Olympics and refused to cancel the remaining games after the massacre in 1972.

Posted by: soccer dad | Dec 10, 2007 9:47:10 PM

Thanks for that, very interesting post, I only knew very vaguely about all this. And thanks for worrying about me, I'm back now!! ;)

Posted by: Miss Worldwide | Dec 10, 2007 10:52:23 PM

mata hari... That's one conclusion you can draw. But another is 'what kind of country considers it inappropriate/objectionable to memorialize innocent athletes who were killed while competing at the Olympics... and do we want them hosting the games?' Yet another is 'do we want such countries to be able to compete in the games?

soccer dad... Oh, I mentioned him. Read again. :-)

Miss Worldwide... Young lady you had us worried sick! :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 11, 2007 12:56:32 AM

I find it interesting that you are criticizing the ban of the German army to be employed within German borders, since there is a quite good reason for this. Instead, Germany has the GSG 9, the police counter-terrorism unit, which was specifically created in response to the events of 1972, and is generally considered to be one of the best in the world. I also have trouble seeing the "historic willingness to comply with the smallest demands of terrorist organizations" (see for example the hijacking of the Landshut). Indeed, if you think Germany is not safe enough for the Olympic games, then there are probably not a lot of countries that are.

Anyway, my main beef with this article is that you link the mistakes made in 1972 to the abstract entities "Germany" and "Munich", and not, for example, to the German government of 1972 or to the Olympic committee. I can very much see your uneasiness and doubts as to whether remembrance will be treated adequately, but why exactly does Munich have to "redeem" itself? What mistake did "Munich" or "Germany" make, as opposed to a bunch of people, some of which were German, and maybe some of which were from Munich? You are drawing a parallel here to Germany trying to redeem itself of its military past, but there is no real parallel; the latter indeed concerns mistakes and crimes that weigh upon pretty much the whole German people, but the former doesn't.

Posted by: chonthek | Dec 11, 2007 1:35:03 AM

You did. My bad.

In my memory, though, he was more the villain than the Germans.

Posted by: soccer dad | Dec 11, 2007 5:38:13 AM

Chonthek has eloquently expressed what I was trying to organize in my brain when I first read this post and moved on until such time as I was able to respond.
The no German troops in Germany gripe you had was one that I didn't quite understand. And I think you unjustly blame a city and country for actions taken by its leaders and those of the Olympic committee almost 40 years ago. Seems unfair.

Sometimes your conclusion drawing hops over a number of stages in my logic filter. It just seems like you have already concluded/judged and write the arguement to make the puzzle pieces fit. I think a big reason for Munich, by the way, is that Germany's mountains worth skiing on or doing any winter sports in are pretty much found in Bavaria. Munich is the capital of Bavaria. It has the infrastructure and ability to house that kind of arrangement. It seems like you look for the hidden meaning (often negative) where there might not be anything at all. Just my observation.

Posted by: nrg | Dec 11, 2007 3:31:16 PM

chonthek... First of all, you missed an important distinction. I personally have no problem with the law regarding German troops not being able to operate within Germany. In fact given the past I think it a fantastic thing. However my point was that lacking a military solution to domestic terror, this is a cause for concern. Yes, there is a well trained police unit now, but unlike a military force which can hone its skills in real life situations, the experience the police has in dealing with terrorists is purely theoretical. I am not suggesting arbitrarily punishing Munich. I'm just saying that the decision to have Munich host the games again is not as simple as say, having Tokyo host them a second time. No tragedy (that I know of) happened in Tokyo. No nation's sensitivities need to be taken into considerations when awarding the games to Innsbruck. My point is that if the Olympic committee is willing to take into consideration the sensitivities of 'some members of the Olympic community' when refusing to hold a memorial for those murdered at the 72 games, how much more sensitive should they be to the feelings of the nation from which the victims came??? Now, in response to your inquiry about "historic willingness to comply with the smallest demands of terrorist organizations", please see this news article from yesterday. Despite specific requests from the US and Israel not to release convicted terrorists (who were serving life sentences) early from prison (so as not to remove a bargaining chip with Iran) Germany opted to give convicted murderers a free pass! By doing this they removed a potential bargaining chip with Iran and sent a clear sign of weakness to all terrorists. This is NOT the country that should be hosting the Olympics!

soccer dad... You know, the memory is the second thing to go. ;-)

nrg... I assure you that I didn't shoot the arrow and paint the bulls-eye afterwards. Please see my reply to chonthek above.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 11, 2007 4:26:06 PM


While I don't think that your argument is wholly inaccurate, I want to point out a few things - including as they relate to your reponse to chonthek.

No country in 1972 was really prepared to deal with terrorism from a domestic perspective. Israel always addressed things from a military standpoint, with often disastrous results. While Sayeret Matkal has had some impressive and high-profile successes, most of these have been in a theater for which they are trained - commando raids on Beirut, a hostage rescue operation in Uganda with zero backup, lots of operations deep in Egypt during the war of attrition, etc, etc. They also have spectacular failures - the Maalot massacre is the biggest one, but included were the Coastal Road massacre, the Savoy Hotel hostage situation, etc. Every one of these cases was a domestic hostage situation with Palestinian terrorists, and each resulted in a rescue operation with a heavy toll on the hostages.

Partly as a result of these failures, Israel founded YAMAM, the civilian counterterrorist force. They are trained specifically for this sort of operation, and have been used extensively and with a great deal of success. Sayeret Matkal is now used for foreign counteterrorism, where they can do the most good.

Just as Israel realized that a military spec ops unit was not the best for dealing with domestic hostage situations and developed YAMAM, so too did Germany realize that their response to the Munich massacre was completely inadequate and developed GSG-9. GSG-9 has an impressive operational record, and I have no doubt that they are among the premier civilian CT units in the world. Perhaps not as good as Israeli CT units, but pretty much no one else has the experience that Israel does.

As for the rest, I think that your reading of events is a bit uncharitable. Yes, there were serious mistakes made during the Munich Games. I think that the mistakes made by law enforcement were terrible (though I admit I can't really blame them for being leery of allowing foreign troops to operate on their soil), and some of the choices made by the Olympic Committee were ridiculous.

Neither of THESE, though, suggest Munich shouldn't be used again. The first issue has been remedied as much as possible (pretty much no other country would be able to do better), and the second is an issue with politics in the IOC, which is a major issue, but not tied to Munich.

You could reasonably argue that we should reform the IOC or boycott the Olympics entirely, and you could have reasonably argued in the past that until Germany developed a viable domestic CT option, they should not be allowed to host the games.

As for the choice of Munich itself, I think it's a simple matter of logistics. There aren't too many options out there for most countries - the US is rather unique in that regard - for a city with the required climate, facilities, infrastructure, money, etc. AFAIK, Berlin and Hamburg are two other decent possibilities in general (though I don't know specifics; just going by their status as major cities - you might be able to add Cologne), but Munich might be better positioned to win for a relatively close Winter Games. There might be a desire to show that they can 'do it right', but I think it would be in acknowledgement of past mistakes, rather than an attempt to erase them.

I agree it would be appropriate for them to publicly acknowledge the massacre at the Games with a ceremony or somesuch, but your strong objections to even consider having the Games there seem a bit over the top.

Just my two cents, though - I could always be wrong.


Posted by: matlabfreak | Dec 11, 2007 9:30:21 PM

Given Munich's past, this is why I always thought Ofra Haza's coming in second place during Eurovision 1983, which was held in Munich, was so amazing. For those who are too young to recall, the song she performed was "Chai" and oddly enough it became quite a popular song in Europe in the early 1980s.

Here's a link to the performance:http://youtube.com/watch?v=tqPGYSWnSFg&feature=related

Posted by: Mordechai | Dec 12, 2007 3:03:28 AM

In my opinion, Germany is nowadays perfectly able to assure the security needed for such an event, it has been proved last year, during the football world cup.

Posted by: Jany | Dec 12, 2007 3:43:50 PM

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