50 years ago, the Munich Olympics massacre changed how we think about terrorism

by | Sep 4, 2022 | Top Stories

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A member of Black September appears on the balcony of the apartment where gunmen held members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage on Sept. 5, 1972. It was the first time a terrorist attack had been broadcast live to a global audience.

Kurt Strumpf/AP

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Kurt Strumpf/AP

It was just after 4 a.m. when an attack that would shock the world began — quietly. Eight men in tracksuits hopped the fence at Munich’s Olympic Village, carrying with them Kalashnikov rifles and grenades in duffel bags. They were members of the group Black September — an affiliate of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Their mission was to hold Israeli athletes hostage and demand the release of 236 prisoners: 234 in Israel and the two leaders of the West German Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. Their mission failed. About 20 hours after it began, five of the hostage-takers would be dead, along with 11 members of Israel’s Olympic team and a West German policeman. But the Munich massacre of Sept. 5 to 6, 1972, would have lasting repercussions on an international scale, waking up Western governments to the threat of terrorism, showing the power of live broadcast and setting the stage for future violence. “The cheerful Games”

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The Israeli Olympic delegation parades during the opening of the Munich Olympic Games on Aug. 26, 1972. West German organizers wanted to give the Games a light atmosphere, trying to break from Germany’s prior Olympics under the Nazis in 1936.

AFP via Getty Images

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AFP via Getty Images

Munich 1972 was supposed to be the opposite of Berlin 1936. Nearly three decades after the Holocaust, West German authorities went to pains to try to erase symbolism of the country’s Nazi past. The light blue Olympic emblem, “Radiant Munich,” as the International Olympic Committee notes, symbolized “light, freshness, generosity.” The event’s motto was “the cheerful Games.”

“They wanted to come across as playful, as laid back, congenial. Not a police state,” says David Clay L …

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