BERLIN — Fifty years ago, Fürstenfeldbruck airfield was the scene of a bloody firefight. When it was over, two burned-out helicopters were neatly parked on the bullet-riddled tarmac, a symbol of German failure in the face of a terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics that left 11 athletes and one German policeman dead.
On Monday, the airfield just west of Munich was the site of a solemn German apology, the first and most important official acknowledgment of the gross mishandling of a terror attack against Israeli citizens on German soil at the 1972 Olympic Games.
“As head of state of this country and on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask your forgiveness,” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany said, addressing the victims’ families. “I ask for your forgiveness for the lack of protection for the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich and for the lack of trying to find explanations afterward.”Some of those in attendance had waited decades to hear Germany acknowledging its failure in the attack by the Palestinian group “Black September.”
“It is my duty and my obligation to confess our German responsibility,” Mr. Steinmeier said in front of a crowd that included President Isaac Herzog of Israel, dignitaries and politicians from both countries and representatives of Jewish groups in Germany, who sat in rows in a makeshift tent on the airfield tarmac.
The families long blamed German authorities for not sufficiently protecting the delegation during the Games despite apparent warnings, for the botched rescue attempts that ultimately lead to 11 dead hostages, and for a decades-long refusal to allow access to all relevant files of the era or to take responsible for their part in the tragedy.
The attack and its aftermath caused a rift in the special relationship that Israel and Germany have tried to build since the end of the Holocaust.
If not for a last-minute deal with the families of the victims last week that included 28 million euros (about $28.1 million), in compensation and the promise of an Israeli-German historical commission tasked with producing an accurate historical understanding of the event — including German failures — Monday’s anniversary would have been a fraught event, as victims’ families had initially vowed to stay away. The agreement, which was mediated by the presidents of both counties, also included a vow that Germany would acknowledge its failure in protecting the lives of the athletes.
“We waited for years for this big day,” Shlomit Romano Barzilay told the German broadcaster ARD. Her father, Yossef Romano, was a weight lifter who was shot in the early hours of the siege and died in front of the other hostages. She recalls feeling frustrated by earlier settlement attempts but said she saw the last-minute deal as a “new beginning.”
“It’s a kind of closure for us after 50 years,” she said. “Finally, everything is being worked through.”
Ankie Spitzer, whose husband, Andrei Spitzer, a fencing coach, was killed, and who became a spokeswoman for the victims’ families, addressed her dead husband as she described her long quest for German recognition of the families’ suffering. “Our road was long and lonely,” she said.
The 1972 Olympic Games were meant to show the lighter side of Germany more than two and a half decades after the end of World War II. As part of that plan, police officers wore light blue host uniforms and were not armed. The compound where athletes stayed was gated, but apartments were unlocked.
Once the Black September group announced that it was holding the Israeli delegation, German authorities began a number of awkward rescue attempts, which culminated in an hourlong shootout at the airfield, where the terrorists were planning to take the hostages on a flight to Cairo.
“Part of the sad and painful truth of this commemoration is that we wanted to be good hosts, but we did not live up to the trust that the Israeli athletes and their families placed in Germany,” said Mr. Steinmeier, who noted Germany’s historic responsibility toward Israel.
Earlier in the day at a separate commemoration in the former Olympic Village, where eight terrorists had been able to gain access to the athletes’ lodgings in the early-morning hours of Sept. 5, 1972, the names of the victims were read aloud and commemorative wreathes were laid for them.
In front of several hundred guests, Mayor Dieter Reiter of Munich also acknowledged Germany’s failures.
“Those responsible for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich made momentous mistakes,” the mayor said. “I apologize for not doing what humanity would have dictated after the attack: admitting mistakes and taking responsibility for them.”