In reconstructing Munich massacre, I learned history is ever-present
Forty years ago, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped, murdered 11 Israelis at Games
Munich was a more innocent time for the Games, but atrocity continues to echo
My father grew up in Munich, and along way, I was forced to re-examine my past
Perhaps you too can identify a primal Olympics, an Olympics that made a deep connection when you were young and impressionable, ready to be seduced by the promise of the Games.
Mine was Munich.
The 1972 Olympics, scarred and star-crossed, laid a claim on me by leaving so much of that promise unfulfilled. Yes, the gold-medal performances of Lasse Viren and Olga Korbut, of Mark Spitz and Frank Shorter, engaged me as they did so many others. But I was 15 then, just beginning to make sense of a world in turmoil. With race, protest and Cold War rivalry playing at the surface, the Munich Olympics became a pageant of vulnerability, American and otherwise. The endgame of the basketball final between the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- Yes! ... wait ... no ... no! -- left me confused. The indignation of ABC's Howard Cosell, in his grilling of the U.S. track coach who had failed to get two runners to the start on time, seemed to speak for a country trying all too hard to keep it together. And the Black September attacks on the Israeli compound in the athletes' village were nothing a suburban teenager could fit into the world he knew.
That atrocity echoes 40 years later, on the eve of the London Games, because it confirmed that the Olympics would forevermore be fair game to the determined fanatic. London understands this: The city won its bid on July 6, 2005; Islamist terrorist bombs ripped through the city's transport system the next day, a date the British have known ever since as 7/7. Even this week, as the weather turns perfect and the torch arrives, it's easy for Londoners to read the worst into the scramble to fill staffing gaps left by security contractor G4S.
"There's going to be an element of holding our breath that all goes well," says Peter Power, whose crisis management consultancy worked on security exercises with London's Olympic Delivery Authority. (For more information on London Olympics security, click here.) "And it probably will go well. But I'm surprised that the threat level hasn't gone from substantial to severe."
Munich was a more innocent time, before experts tossed around terms like "asymmetric risks" and "cyber terrorism," and threat levels came color-coded. That's one reason the completely human inflections in the voice of ABC's Jim McKay, as he relayed updates on the hostage drama, held so much power. Sitting in front of the TV, I recognized the funeral march at the memorial service for the 11 dead Israelis, for it came from the same Beethoven symphony we were struggling to play in our high school orchestra. Even in that, the Munich Games seemed to speak to me.
So I felt a little shiver 10 years ago, when I took a call from Craig Neff, SI's Olympic editor, with an assignment to revisit the Munich tragedy for the magazine. Craig supplied all the news-peg rigging with which good editors equip writers: We're exactly 30 years on; the Palestinian mastermind of the attack, Abu Daoud, had recently published a memoir; the looming 2004 Olympics in Athens appeared to suffer from a security deficit, the perils of which the 1972 Games served as an abiding reminder.
But all I needed to hear was "Munich." I'd lived that tick-tock, hanging with millions of others on McKay's every word -- first the shock of the hostage taking, then the false hope of a successful rescue, then the horrifying and irretrievable finality of the fireball at an airfield on the outskirts of the city.
I set out to learn all I could. Time had receded like a wave, leaving details exposed on the shoals of history. A few paragraphs in an old news clip caused me to blink and shake my head, for they seemed to convey something almost impossible to fathom. As I re-read them, I wondered if a couple of years of college German, rusting now, were playing tricks on me.
There was a man, this short item seemed to say, who like Peter Power prepared crisis scenarios in advance of the Munich Olympics. He had predicted the attacks with haunting accuracy. Yet the organizers had refused to listen to him.
Could this possibly be true?
I knew someone who could properly translate the clip for me, someone fluent in German.
My father had grown up in Munich.
Now 81, he was suffering from the cancer that would eventually get him. But he took a particular interest in my assignment, confirming the gist of this story and carefully translating many more, from the Frankfurter Allgemeine and Suddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel.
I was off. I consulted the book One Day in September and watched the documentary on which it was based. I asked my wife, a French Lit major, to highlight chunks of Abu Daoud's memoir, which had been published in France because no one anywhere else would touch it. I went to Athens to speak with security personnel and inspect the Olympic sites.
And I traveled to my dad's hometown.
Two months after Craig's phone call I turned in a story that would run over 17 pages.
This is how it began:
For a citizen of a country manacled to its past, Dr. Georg Sieber had a remarkable knack for seeing the future. In the months leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West German organizers asked Sieber, then a 39-year-old police psychologist, to "tabletop" the event, as security experts call the exercise of sketching out worst-case scenarios. Sieber looks a bit like the writer Tom Clancy, and the crises he limned drew from every element of the airport novelist's genre: kidnappers and hostages, superpower patrons and smuggled arms, hijacked jets and remote-controlled bombs. Studying the most ruthless groups of that era, from the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to the Basque separatist group ETA and West Germany's own Baader-Meinhof Gang, he came up with 26 cases, each imagined in apocalyptic detail. Most of Sieber's scenarios focused on the Olympic Village, the Games' symbolic global community; one that did not --a jet hired by a Swedish right wing group crashes into an Olympic Stadium filled with people -- foreshadowed a September day in another city many years later.
Soon after touching down in Munich I arranged to meet Norbert, the German photographer assigned to the story, at a Bierstube around the corner from the Marriott. If we did only one thing, I told him, we had to find Georg Sieber.
There were three Georg Siebers in the Munich phone book. Norbert dialed the first, who answered right away. No, he said, he wasn't the psychologist Georg Sieber. But he got calls for that Georg Sieber all the time and cheerfully supplied the correct number.
We dialed again. Dr. Georg Sieber himself picked up the phone and invited us to his home.
Sieber now worked as a consultant to insurance companies eager to pare back their risk. But he had never fully put behind him his time with the Munich police force and the events of 1972. Over the course of several hours he laid out his story with matter-of-factness and clarity of detail. It was as if, I remember thinking, he had been waiting 30 years for someone to show up at his doorstep.
But on Sept. 5, 1972, at the Munich Olympics, history would not wait. It hastened to crib from one of Sieber's scenarios virtually horror for horror. The psychologist had submitted to organizers Situation 21, which comprised the following particulars: At 5:00 a.m. one morning, a dozen armed Palestinians would scale the perimeter fence of the Village. They would invade the building that housed the Israeli delegation, kill a hostage or two ("To enforce discipline," Sieber says today), then demand the release of prisoners held in Israeli jails and a plane to fly to some Arab capital. Even if the Palestinians failed to liberate their comrades, Sieber predicted, they would "turn the Games into a political demonstration" and would be "prepared to die . . .. On no account can they be expected to surrender."
To Sieber, every terrorist organization has an M.O. that makes it a kind of text to be read. With the Black September faction of the PLO he hardly had to read between the lines. "I was simply trying to answer the question, If they were to do it, how would they do it?" Sieber says, in his house in the Nymphenburg district of Munich, the Bavarian capital.
My father spent his adolescence in Nymphenburg. He lived on the Schlossrondel, the lane that traces a gracious arc in front of the palace where Bavaria's kings used to spend their summers, steps from the site of the 1972 Olympic dressage competition. He moved there with his sister in the early 1930s, soon after their parents divorced and their mother remarried, to an obstetrician and amateur violinist whom my father came to adore.
That stepfather, whose patients had included the wives of several Nazi officers, was dead by the time the war broke out. My aunt once described for me the sight of my grandmother as the air-raid sirens moaned, descending the stairs into the basement in elegant clothes, candle in hand, her head surmounted by her late husband's World War I helmet, "as if she'd walked out of a Delacroix painting."
Meanwhile my father had been issued the uniform of the Hitler Youth, like everyone at his school. Eighteen when the Nazis invaded Poland, he was quickly drafted into the Luftwaffe. For a year and a half, he served as a grunt, driving maps between German positions in and around Dnipropetrovsk in the Ukraine.
He would owe his survival of the war to many happenstances, including a moment in 1943 when he spotted a notice in the barracks that offered soldiers a chance to return to Munich to study chemistry. He had wanted to become an architect, but a change in career plans would be a small price to pay for a ticket back from the Russian front. Thus he wasn't in the line of fire when Stalin launched his offensive in the east. But by late 1944, he had been recalled from the ETH, Munich's institute of technology, and sent to the western front. This time he wouldn't play a support role behind the lines. Now Hitler was throwing every available body against the Allied assault.
There was only one problem with Sieber's "situations." To guard against them, organizers would have to scrap plans to stage the Games they had been planning for years -- a sporting jubilee to repudiate the last Olympics on German soil, the 1936 Nazi Games in Berlin. The Munich Olympics were to be "the Carefree Games." There would be no place for barbed wire, troops or police bristling with sidearms. Why, at an Olympic test event at Munich's Dante Stadium in 1971, when police deployed nothing more menacing than German shepherds, foreign journalists had teed off on the organizers, accusing them of forgetting that Dachau lay only 12 miles away. Nein, the organizers came to agree, where Berlin had been festooned with swastikas and totalitarian red, Munich would feature a one-worldish logo and pastel bunting. Where Hitler's Olympics had opened and closed with cannon salutes and der Fuehrer himself presiding, these would showcase a new, forward-looking Germany, fired with the idealism pervading the world at the time. Security personnel, called Olys, were to be sparse and inconspicuous, prepared for little more than ticket fraud and drunkenness. They would wear turquoise blazers and, during the day, carry nothing but walkie-talkies.
The organizers asked Sieber if he might get back to them with less-frightful scenarios -- threats better scaled to the Games they intended to stage.
The rise of the Nazis sent my dad's half-Jewish father and Catholic stepmother on the lam. Kurt Wolff had been an avant-garde book publisher, Kafka's first, and a patron of "decadent" painters like Chagall, Kandinsky and Klee. In 1933, he and his wife, Helen, fled Munich on a tip, just in front of the Gestapo. They made it to Tuscany, then Nice and ultimately through Lisbon to New York, where they arrived, virtually penniless, in 1941. With the help of refugee resettlement agencies they found an apartment off Washington Square Park, out of which they began to publish under an imprint called Pantheon Books.
It's a family mystery how my father and aunt back in Munich didn't wind up in a Nazi camp. They were certainly Jewish enough to qualify. I got the best explanation from my aunt, shortly before her death in 1994: She and my father had a Jewish grandmother named Marx, but on their mother's side there had been another grandmother, also named Marx, who was Christian. Someone -- perhaps that well-connected stepfather, the obstetrician -- had worked a piece of genealogical sleight of hand, obscuring the religion of one grandmother with the faith of the other.
After the war my father returned to Nymphenburg to live with his mother. He picked up day work making sketches of damaged buildings to help with their reconstruction. He improved his English by listening to a jazz show on Armed Forces Radio called Luncheon in Muenchen. To him there was something irrevocably broken about his homeland, in far more than the literal sense. He had experienced enough so that, when his father sent news from the States of a chance to do graduate study in chemistry, he scarcely hesitated before boarding a ship for the U.S. He arrived in New York in August 1948, on Friday the 13th.
After finishing up with Georg Sieber, I swung by to see my father's nephew, my cousin Jon. Also a psychologist and a Nymphenburger, he lived only a few blocks away. I explained to him why I was in the neighborhood.
"I know Georg Sieber," Jon said. "He's a clever man. He served for years as president of the Bavarian Psychologists Association."
Jon, it turned out, had taken Sieber's place.
Thirty years later Sieber recalls all this with neither bitterness nor any apparent sense of vindication. He betrays only the clinical detachment characteristic of his profession. "The American psychologist Lionel Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance," he says. "If you have two propositions in conflict, it's human nature to disregard one of them."
With security tossed aside, the Olympics became one big party. Mimes, jugglers, bands and Waldi, the dachshund mascot, gamboled through the Village, while uncredentialed interlopers slipped easily past its gates. After late-night runs to the Hofbrauhaus, why would virile young athletes bother to detour to an official entrance when they could scale a chain-link fence only six feet high? The Olys learned to look the other way. A police inspector supervising security in the Village eventually cut back nighttime patrols because, as he put it, "at night nothing happens." Early in the Games, when several hundred young Maoist demonstrators congregated on a hill in the Olympic Park, guards dispersed them by distributing candy. Indeed, in a storeroom in the Olympic Stadium, police kept bouquets of flowers in case of another such incident. Hans-Jochen Vogel, who as mayor had led Munich's campaign to land the Games, today recalls the prevailing atmosphere: "People stood on the small hills that had been carved out of the rubble from the war. They could see into some of the venues without a ticket. And then this fifth of September happened. Nobody foresaw such an attack."
Nobody except Sieber. To be sure, he turned out to have been slightly off. Black September commandos climbed the fence about 50 minutes earlier than envisioned in Situation 21. To gain entry to the Israelis' ground-floor apartment at 31 Connollystrasse, they did not, as Sieber had imagined, have to ignite a blasting compound because they were able to jimmy the door open. But the rest of his details -- from the commandos' demands for a prisoner exchange and an airliner; to the eventual change of venue from the Village; even to the two Israelis killed in the first moments of the takeover -- played out with a spooky accuracy. By the early hours of the next day nine more Israelis were dead, along with five of the terrorists and a Munich policeman, after an oafish rescue attempt at a military airfield in the suburb of Fuerstenfeldbruck. Following indignant words from the paladins of the Olympic movement, after a little mournful Beethoven, the Games of Munich went on. It's an article of faith that The Games Must Go On. For the 30 years since, the Olympics -- indeed, all sports events of any great scale -- have carried on, even if permanently altered by the awareness that terrorists could strike again.
To revisit the attack is to go slack-jawed at the official lassitude and incompetence, and to realize how much has changed. The organizers spent less than $2 million to make their Games secure; in Athens the Olympic security bill will total at least $600 million, none of which will go toward candy or flowers. Says Michael Hershman, a senior executive at Decision Strategies, a Fairfax, Va.-based security consulting firm that has been involved in five Olympics, "Over the years Munich has served as a model of what not to do in every conceivable way."
But today the Munich attack is irrelevant in a sense, for terrorists are unlikely to try to duplicate it. In the cat-and-mouse world of terrorism and counterterrorism, the bad guys strive for audacity, as only the unthinkable will both confound security planners and achieve what terrorists truly hope for, which is to galvanize the attention of the world. So organizers think and think, to close that window of vulnerability. For the Summer Games in Sydney they tabletopped 800 scenarios, even as they girded for that unthinkable 801st. "You can't prepare for everything," says Alex Gilady, an Israeli member of the International Olympic Committee. "In Atlanta one of the scenarios was that a bomb would go off in Centennial Park. When you're at the barn, you don't believe the horse will run away until it runs away."
I've spent the past several months posted in London with my family, reporting on the forthcoming Olympics. During the recent soccer Euro, our kids -- a boy, 10, and a girl, 9 -- cheered for Germany. They wear their Schweinsteiger and Ozil jerseys, gifts from cousins back in Bavaria, around town without the slightest self-consciousness. But it has been impossible for my wife and me to take them to places like the Cabinet War Rooms and St. Paul's Cathedral without speaking of the Blitz, and when we speak of the Blitz it's impossible not to speak of the Nazis -- and to share with them some essentials of family history.
There was a time not long ago, we tell them, when the German government killed millions of Jewish people simply because they were Jews. A time when Germany would have had a place for a Schweinsteiger, but none for an Ozil. Our children had gotten to know and love their grandfather before he died, in 2007, and we explain how he had spent the war. They fall silent for a spell.
"Couldn't Opa have been a spy?" my daughter finally asks.
I have no real answer, but take it as a good sign that she poses the question.
Over the years I've asked questions like it. They're the kinds that occur when you see the old men with the camp tattoos in the locker room at the Jewish Community Center, to which your family belongs, as most families in your town belong, and wonder what these men would think if they knew.
They occur when you hear the violin your wife now plays -- a gift to her from your father, who himself had inherited it from that obstetrician stepfather -- and consider the breathtaking marks Germany has made on the world, the beautiful music and almost inconceivable evil.
They occur when you find yourself in Normandy, stomach knotted from more than the Calvados, peering down from the cliffs above Omaha Beach at the waves crashing below; and then, with a glance over at the perfect lines of crosses in the U.S. military cemetery, feeling a knee-buckling gratitude for every Allied soldier who gave or risked his life -- so your father might be captured at the Battle of the Bulge; and survive an American P.O.W. camp near Le Mans; and eventually make it to New York, where he would meet a music student from Connecticut who a few years earlier had planted a victory garden, and a few years later would become your mother.
They occur before you launch into an exercise in calculation that ultimately turns in on itself: Is my father's service in the Luftwaffe at all mitigated by the Nazis having banned 80 percent of the books published by his father? Would my own moral inheritance be cleaner if 90 or 95 percent of the books in the Kurt Wolff Verlag catalog had been declared threats to the Reich? Is there such a thing as a "moral inheritance?"
If some sort of deficit of virtue has been handed down to me on my father's side, is it closed by the efforts of a woman on my mother's, a cousin who was awarded France's Legion of Honor for her support of the Resistance, and who led a crusade on behalf of the women of Ravensbrueck, on whom Nazi doctors had conducted gruesome experiments, ultimately bringing them to the U.S. for rehabilitation and securing reparations for them from the German government after the war?
Ah, but the forebears of Caroline Ferriday -- as in Ferriday, Louisiana --had been slaveowners. How many good works was cousin Caroline obliged to perform to square the moral accounts of her own ancestors?
And then the exercise ends. It has to end. If such balance sheets do exist, let every child be handed a blank one on the day she or he is born.
Late on the morning of Sept. 5, 1972, several hours after the horse had left the barn, the director of security for the Games, Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber, told Georg Sieber that his help was no longer needed. "[Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir is involved," he said. "This is no longer a psychological matter, but a political one."
At this, Sieber resigned from the department. He returned to his home in Nymphenburg, flicked on the TV and poured a cup of coffee.
Sometimes there are things over which an individual has no control. Georg Sieber came to understand this. My father did too.
It's a lesson my daughter will learn someday. But I'm not eager for her to make that peace with the fates, to know that resignation, any sooner than she must.