On August 26, 1972, the Munich Olympic Games opened. Ten days later, tragedy struck when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes. Seventeen people died in what would be known as the Munich massacre. The only Olympics previously held in Germany took place in Berlin at the height of the Nazi era. The 1972 Games provided West Germany with an opportunity to revitalize its international image. 121 nations participated, sending some 7,000 athletes. Security was not tight, and most police officers were unarmed. The Cold War was still in full swing and Berlin was divided by a wall that split Germany between the democratic West and the communist East.
At the time, West Germany was also wracked by internal strife. An extreme leftist terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction had carried out numerous attacks. Two of its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulriche Meinhoff, were in prison. The Middle East, meanwhile, was still gripped by the 50-year-old Arab-Israeli feud. In the 1920s, the Zionist movement helped transfer European Jews to Palestine. From then on, a millennial peace between the Middle East’s Arab majority and its Jewish minority lapsed into division and warfare. In 1948, the United Nations-backed creation of the Israeli state exacerbated the conflict. Palestinians, now deprived of a country of their own, continued guerrilla attacks on Israeli targets. In 1964, several groups fighting for the liberation of Palestine coalesced into one paramilitary organization known as the PLO, or Palestine Liberation Organization. Militant terrorist groups were also drawn under its umbrella. One of these groups, Black September, went into action the night of September 5, 1972. An eight-man commando team broke into the Israeli Olympic compound and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. Two were killed as they attempted to resist the assault. In exchange for the release of the hostages, Black September demanded that 234 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails be liberated. They insisted the RAF leaders Baader and Meinhof be freed as well.
Israel refused to negotiate. West German officials made several rescue attempts. All the attempts failed. The terrorists sought passage to Cairo, and they were allowed to travel with the hostages to the Munich airport. Five West German snipers were positioned on the edges of the tarmac. Gunfire broke out at 11 pm. By 1:30 am on September 6, 17 people were dead: 11 hostages, five captors and one West German officer. On September 9 of the same year,the Israeli air force bombed Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon in reprisal. The civilian death toll was estimated at 200.