Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Gamesby David Clay Large
Set against the backdrop of the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, this compelling book provides the first comprehensive history of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, notorious for the abduction of Israeli Olympians by Palestinian terrorists and the hostages’ tragic deaths after a botched rescue mission by the German police. Drawing on a wealth of newly available sources from the time, eminent historian David Clay Large explores the 1972 festival in all its ramifications. He interweaves the political drama surrounding the Games with the athletic spectacle in the arena of play, itself hardly free of controversy. Writing with flair and an eye for telling detail, Large brings to life the stories of the indelible characters who epitomized the Games. Key figures range from the city itself, the visionaries who brought the Games to Munich against all odds, and of course to the athletes themselves, obscure and famous alike. With the Olympic movement in constant danger of terrorist disruption, and with the fortieth anniversary of the 1972 tragedy upon us in 2012, the Munich story is more timely than ever.
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Munich 1972Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games
By David Clay Large
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Decision for Munich
What could one say about Munich, except that it was a German paradise? —Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock (1925)
The dozens of tired and sweaty dignitaries gathered in Rome's opulent Hotel Excelsior on a muggy afternoon in late April 1966 were getting restless. Representing the municipalities competing for the honor of hosting the Summer and Winter Olympic Games to be held in 1972, they had been cooling their heels for hours in a stuffy anteroom outside the conference hall where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was set to determine its venue decisions for that year's Olympic festivals.
The four cities still in contention for the '72 Summer Games were Montreal, Munich, Detroit, and Madrid. (Montreal was bidding for the fourth time; Detroit, for the seventh. Madrid had withdrawn a few weeks earlier, only to jump back in.) Speculating among themselves over which of their cities might get the nod, these rival Olympic aspirants could not help but be reminded of another secretive and tension-ridden Roman lottery—that involving the selection of a new pope by the College of Cardinals, which by hallowed tradition involved the release of a puff of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel to announce "Habemus Papam." The IOC, then less than a century old, lacked such hoary customs, but it certainly had learned over time how to milk its much-anticipated venue decisions for all the publicity value they were worth.
Finally, after a six-hour wait, the delegations from the four competing cities were invited into the inner sanctum. IOC president Avery Brundage, the seventy-eight-year-old former Olympian and Chicago construction magnate who had been running the committee for the past fourteen years, stepped to the microphone and growled, "The Games of the Twentieth Summer Olympiad are awarded to ... Munich!" Allowing for a few seconds of audible gasps and scattered applause, Brundage then pronounced that the '72 Winter Games would go to Sapporo, Japan. Thus, roughly two decades after the end of World War II, the IOC had entrusted the world's most prestigious international athletic festival to the principal losers in that epochal conflict.
Like most of the IOC's venue decisions over the years, the 1966 decision for Munich (we are not concerned here with Sapporo) had a complicated background, rife with political intrigue and mutual back-scratching and back-stabbing. But in the case of Munich's selection, there was even more political infighting and controversy than usual. As noted above, the Bavarian city had a troubling Nazi past, and it also occupied a prominent place on the front line of the Cold War. To understand how, on April 26, 1966, the IOC chose Munich, West Germany, of all places, to host the 1972 Summer Olympics requires that we flesh out this complicated back story.
Will the Real Germany Please Stand Up? The FRG-GDR Struggle for Olympic Representation
When the modern Olympic Games resumed in 1948 after a twelve-year hiatus occasioned by World War II, virtually no one connected to the Olympic movement could have imagined that a German city would host an Olympic festival in the foreseeable future, much less host one a mere twenty-four years hence. (But then, in view of the horrors inflicted upon the world by the Germans during the war, it would have been equally difficult to fathom that those same Germans, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, would once again have major military arms at their disposal within a mere decade of the war's conclusion.)
No Germans (or Japanese) were allowed to participate in the first post–World War II Olympics in 1948—the St. Moritz Winter Games and the London Summer Games—just as Germans had been banned from the first two post–World War I Olympic festivals in Antwerp (1920) and Paris (1924). Although Germany was obliged after World War II to sit out only one Olympic season, returning to the Olympic fold in 1952 at the Oslo Winter Games and the Helsinki Summer Games, the "Germany" in question consisted solely of West Germany, formally known as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), with its capital in the small and unprepossessing university town of Bonn. (True, there was also a team at Helsinki from the ethnic German Saarland, but at that time the Saarland, lying on the Franco-German border, was officially a protectorate of France, and its presence at the Games was simply a function of folie de grandeur on the part of Paris.) As for that other product of Germany's Cold War division in 1949, the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic (GDR), it could have sent athletes to Oslo and Helsinki only under the auspices of the "German" national team organized by the Olympic committee of the FRG, which, tellingly, called itself the National Olympic Committee for Germany (NOCG). At that time the NOCG was the only German Olympic agency recognized by the IOC.
Not surprisingly, GDR sports officials protested vehemently against this arrangement, and formally sought accreditation for their own national Olympic committee, formed in 1951. The IOC, however, insisted it could recognize only one committee per nation, thereby implying that the GDR was not a nation at all. This was exactly the line taken by the FRG, which claimed to be the sole legal representative of German sovereignty and nationhood. The then-president of the NOCG, Ritter von Halt, a wealthy banker, Brundage confidant, and former Nazi Party member who had helped organize "Hitler's Games" in 1936, argued also that the IOC must not recognize the East German committee on grounds that this would introduce "politics" into the Olympic movement. Thus, in 1952, it certainly looked as if the IOC was happily doing its part to strengthen the Western side in the crucial German theater of the dawning Cold War. This seemed only to confirm the committee's long-established image as an archconservative club for superannuated sporting men from the lower aristocracy and global plutocracy—what George Orwell called "the Blimp Class."
And yet, while the IOC in the early 1950s definitely favored the Western side in the German-German struggle over Olympic representation, the committee was not really satisfied with an arrangement that effectively excluded the East Germans from any Olympic competition. Ever since its foundation in the late nineteenth century, the IOC had always liked to think of itself as an "apolitical" organization that stood airily above the petty quarrels between nations. On the other hand, the modern Olympic movement had never lived up to its "Olympian" pretentions. Its principal founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was guided by distinctly national principles, with participation in the Games based solely on national affiliation and a set of rituals emphasizing national pathos. Indeed, the Olympics had emerged over the years as yet another kind of measuring stick for national prowess, its quadrennial athletic competitions displays less of international togetherness than of "warfare without weapons." And yet, in the wake of World War II, the most destructive conflict in modern history, leaders of the Olympic movement, even its patriarch Avery Brundage, were anxious to do more to live up to Olympism's putative universalist principles.
This aspiration explains why the IOC finally welcomed the Soviet Union into the Olympic movement in 1951 (for participation in the '52 Games), and why the committee at least tried to admit both new Chinas, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China (Beijing), to the Games of 1952 and 1956. Alas, since neither China was satisfied with the IOC's "two-China" policy, no team from China appeared in 1952, and Taiwan participated in 1956 only after Beijing elected to boycott that festival.
Unable to have its way with the two Chinas, the IOC was determined to impose its will on the two Germanys. Thus, in 1952, the committee decreed that, in all future Olympics beginning in 1956, the two German states must be represented in Olympic competition by a common, unified team. In other words, the IOC would make the Germans behave as one, whether they liked it or not. For Brundage, achieving this result would demonstrate to the world that sport, at least Olympic sport, could indeed "triumph over politics." Or, as he put the matter with characteristic grandiloquence, "Under the symbol of the five Olympic rings political problems could be resolved in the realm of sport that politicians had failed to master." With time, Brundage became so infatuated with the concept of a single, unified German team that he referred to it as "my baby." He became as protective of this ungainly infant as any doting parent.
Although, for the time being, the IOC continued to grant full recognition only to West Germany's Olympic committee (East Germany's committee received "provisional" status), the committee also decided, after much deliberation, that the FRG's national symbols, its flag and anthem, would not be appropriate for the new unified team. Instead, Germany's squad would henceforth participate in the Games under a "neutral" set of symbols emblematic of the "idea of Germany" but not specific to either of the two rival German states.
So just what kind of unifying Olympic symbolism did the luminaries of Lausanne come up with for the Germans? For the 1956 Olympics in Cortina, Italy, and Melbourne, Australia, a new neutral flag was not necessary because, until 1959, both Germanys used the same black-red-gold banner associated with the short-lived German republican movement of 1848–1849 and the ill-fated "Weimar Republic" of 1918–1933. In 1959, however, things became complicated, for at that point the GDR introduced a new national flag of its own, employing the old republican German colors but with a central emblem consisting of a hammer and draftsman's compass. Called to action, the IOC decreed that for the impending Games of 1960, to be held in Squaw Valley, California, and Rome, Italy, the unified German team would appear under a replacement banner featuring the standard black-red-gold bars with Olympism's five linked rings adorning the center.
Troublesome from the beginning was the question of a common anthem, for each new German state had its own national hymn. The FRG used a stirring composition whose melody had been written by Josef Haydn for the Austrian emperor in 1797, with a German nationalist text added by Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841. This so-called Deutschlandlied was adopted for the first time as German's national anthem by the Weimar Republic in 1922 and then, with some reluctance, carried over by the Nazis during the Third Reich. When the West German parliament decided in 1952 to enshrine the "Deutschlandlied" as the infant FRG's own anthem, it stipulated that only the unobjectionable third stanza emphasizing "unity, justice and freedom" should be retained, while the first stanza evoking a "Germany above everything" and stretching "from the Meuse to the Neman" must go. (Alas, the politically correct third stanza never really caught on with the West German public, many citizens not even bothering to learn the words. At sporting events, most fans continued to sing the first stanza.) The GDR, for its part, had commissioned an entirely new hymn, "Risen from the Ruins," with earnestly inspirational lyrics by the Communist poet Johannes R. Becher ("Let us plough, let us build, let us learn and create as never before") and rousing music by Hanns Eisler. Since neither Germany could stand to hear the other Germany's anthem, and most people outside Germany had little use for either national hymn, the IOC came up with a perfectly anodyne (and predictable) replacement: the Choral Section of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Ode to Joy," with words by Friedrich Schiller.
Not surprisingly, neither side was entirely happy with this setup, which ensured that none of the German athletes participating in the greatest athletic show on earth would be allowed to parade around under their own national flag or hear their own national anthem trilling from the stadium sound system as they collected their gold medals on the victory podium.
Early on, it was mainly the Bonn government that felt aggrieved over the new arrangement because the admittance of East German athletes to the Games and the creation of neutral symbolism for the unified teams obviously compromised the FRG's claim to be the only true and legally sovereign Germany. In 1955, Bonn reinforced this claim with the so-called Hallstein Doctrine, which derived its name from Walter Hallstein, a prominent foreign policy advisor to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. This doctrine stated that the FRG would retain diplomatic relations solely with nations that did not recognize the GDR (excepting only the USSR, with which Bonn itself started exchanging ambassadors in 1955). While this move helped for a time to keep East Germany diplomatically cut off from much of the world, it also circumscribed Bonn's influence in the world because it prevented the FRG from maintaining relations with the Communist-ruled Eastern European governments, all of which recognized the GDR.
To Bonn's dismay, the Hallstein Doctrine cut little ice with the IOC, which essentially ignored it. For anticommunist hardliners in the FRG government, including Adenauer himself, the notion that an august international body like the IOC would accord any form of recognition to the GDR was shocking. On the eve of the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, Adenauer's government even contemplated boycotting these Games rather than going along with the unified team concept. Had Bonn taken this route, it would not have been entirely alone, for, in protest against the USSR's brutal suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in that year, Spain and The Netherlands pulled their teams from Melbourne rather than compete alongside the Soviets. But of course, in Bonn's case a boycott would have been entirely counterproductive because East German athletes would certainly have joined their Soviet comrades, making the GDR, not the FRG, look like the real German state. Gritting his teeth, Adenauer sanctioned the appearance of a unified German team in Melbourne after all.
Adenauer and the West German conservatives were even more distraught four years later on the eve of the Rome Games, for the GDR had just introduced its new flag, dubbed by Bonn the "Spalterfahne" (splitter flag). To the West German leaders, this innovation opened the horrible possibility that their nation's athletes and supporters in Rome might be compelled to see the GDR's reviled hammer and compass hoisted over the stadium. When the IOC jumped in at the last minute with its five-ring solution, Bonn was not much mollified, for it saw the traditional German banner, now exclusively Bonn's banner, as the only legitimate symbol for the German nation. To Adenauer, the flag compromise showed the IOC at its craven worst. The next thing you knew, he groused to Willi Daume, the committee would be allowing the Sarrasani Circus "to put an elephant on the flag," while the butchers' guild might be permitted to add its trademark "pig's head." Declaring that it would be "beneath the dignity of a German citizen to march under [the five-ringed flag]," the chancellor once again threatened a boycott. However, cooler heads in the NOCG managed yet again to convince the chancellor that a boycott would benefit only the GDR, and the unified German team, per IOC decree, marched into the Rome stadium bearing the multicolored five-ringed emblem that Baron de Coubertin himself had designed (in 1914!) as a symbol of Olympism's ability to unite all five continents.
In October 1963, eighty-seven-year-old Konrad Adenauer, whose government was mired in scandal and whose own personal welcome was wearing thin after fourteen years of imperious rule, stepped aside for a fellow Conservative, Ludwig Erhard. An expert on economics, the portly and affable Erhard was inclined to break away from Adenauer's self-isolating hard-line stance against the GDR and Eastern Europe. Yet, in the end, the replacement of "Der Alte" (the old man) by "Der Dicke" (the fat man) did not significantly improve relations with the East, either in politics or in sport.
The reason for this, of course, was that roughly two years before the changeover in Bonn a concrete wall had been thrown up by the GDR government around West Berlin to prevent East German citizens from continuing to use the now capitalist, western part of the former Reich capital as an avenue of escape to West Germany. For Bonn, the construction of the Berlin Wall made it impossible, at least for the time being, to even think of improving or normalizing relations with the East. How could one do normal business with a government that walled in its own citizens, while justifying its new (in GDR terminology) "Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier" as a necessary measure to prevent Westerners from moving east to subvert the "Socialist Workers' and Peasants' Paradise"?
Excerpted from Munich 1972 by David Clay Large Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
David Clay Large is professor of history at Montana State University. He has also taught at Berkeley, Smith College, and Yale University. He is the author of several acclaimed histories, including Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, Where Ghosts Walked: Munich’s Road to the Third Reich, and Berlin. An avid athlete, Large, when not writing, teaching, or parenting (he has a nine-year-old daughter), can often be found running the roads of Bozeman, Montana, and San Francisco, California, the two places he calls home.
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