The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany

The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany

by Kay Schiller, Chris Young

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The 1972 Munich Olympics—remembered almost exclusively for the devastating terrorist attack on the Israeli team—were intended to showcase the New Germany and replace lingering memories of the Third Reich. That hope was all but obliterated in the early hours of September 5, when gun-wielding Palestinians murdered 11 members of the Israeli team. In the first cultural and political history of the Munich Olympics, Kay Schiller and Christopher Young set these Games into both the context of 1972 and the history of the modern Olympiad. Delving into newly available documents, Schiller and Young chronicle the impact of the Munich Games on West German society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520947580
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Series: Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism , #42
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Kay Schiller is Senior Lecturer in History at Durham University. His books on German-Jewish refugee scholars during National Socialism include Gelehrte Gegenwelten and Weltoffener Humanismus (edited with Gerald Hartung). Christopher Young is Reader in Modern and Medieval German Studies and Head of the Department of German and Dutch at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Narrativische Perspektiven in Wolframs Willehalm and a coauthor of History of the German Language through Texts.

Read an Excerpt

The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany

By Kay Schiller, Christopher Young


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94758-0



Telcon: 12:05—9/2/72

Mr. Kissinger

The President

K: Mr. President.

P: Oh, Henry, I was thinking—you know Fischer will be coming in having won that chess thing sometime. And I want you to see if we can get the other fella to come to [sic].

K: Spassky.

P: Yes, you know what I mean.

K: Right.

P: They have had a long match, etc.

K: No, we better not, Mr. President, because Spassky is thinking of defecting and we better stay away.

P: Oh, is he?

K: Yes.

P: OK. Thanks.

As Richard Nixon soon learned in this brief exchange with Henry Kissinger on 2 September 1972—one day after Bobby Fischer's victory over Boris Spassky in the most famous match in chess history, and one week into the Games of the twentieth Olympiad in Munich—the relationship between sport and politics is not always easy. At best—as the president might have deduced had he reflected for a moment on the irony of Fischer's one-man assault on the Soviet system at the height of East-West détente—it can be slippery. At worst, as the world would be forced to conclude just days later, it can prove tragic. By 6 September, the conclusion of the Fischer-Spassky saga had been eclipsed by events in Munich, and Kissinger was pondering the etiquette of changing his plan to combine a meeting with West German government officials in the Bavarian capital with a visit to the Olympic Games. He had good reason to hesitate. In the early hours of 5 September, members of the Palestinian group Black September had broken into the Olympic village, shot dead two members of the Israeli Olympic team, and taken nine of their compatriots hostage in a day-long siege that turned Munich into "the cockpit of world events." When this seismic moment of globally televised terrorism ended in a farrago of police errors that led to the death of all the Israeli captives, the bleakest day in the histories of the Olympic movement and the young Federal Republic was complete. As Chancellor Willy Brandt later recalled: "My disappointment at the time was intense [not least] because the Olympics on which we had expended so much loving care would not go down in history as a happy occasion."

Brandt's prediction has proved all too accurate. Sports retrospectives might remind us of the athletic prowess displayed in 1972: Lasse Virén's double in the men's distance events; gymnast Olga Korbut (whom Nixon did soon manage to attract to the White House) "playing like a kid in the sun"; or Mark Spitz's colossal, and until Beijing 2008, unsurpassed seven golds in the pool. But over thirty years later, the Munich Games are still dominated by their moment of nadir. Memorialization of 1972 has tended to caricature the Germans as hapless fall guys with a pantomime baddy's past. Recent cinematic treatments such as Kevin MacDonald's Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September (1999) and Steven Spielberg's controversial Munich (2006) are but prominent cases in point. The aim of this book is to redress the balance and tell the story of Munich from the beginning rather than the end. Late in the evening of 4 September, the Olympic stadium witnessed the "romantic triumph of a slender German schoolgirl in the high jump," a moment "that united the minds and emotions of spectators from a hundred different nations in a common celebration of unique athleticism." Were it not for events that began just hours later, sixteen-year-old Ulrike Meyfarth's joyous leap to victory might well have stood as a metaphor for West Germany's successful rehabilitation on the world stage through the Olympics. This book seeks to examine the significance of those Games to the Federal Republic and explore, for the first time on the basis of extensive archival research, the "loving care" it invested in them. With the exception of a few brief essays, this topic, which sheds critical light on West German culture, politics, and society in the s and the early 1970s, remains virtually unexplored.

It hardly needs stating that the 1972 Olympics were of vital importance to West Germany. Until that point, its international representation had relied upon membership to NATO and the European Communities, as well as the usual forms of cultural diplomacy such as state visits, participation in world fairs, and specific initiatives such as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Goethe Institute. By comparison, the symbolic capital on offer via the Olympic Games was immeasurable. As calculated by the organizers, it would have taken thirty-four years of filling the eighty-thousand-person-capacity Olympic Stadium on a daily basis to accumulate the number of worldwide television viewing figures for the opening ceremony alone. This same fact had not escaped the Black September terrorists who, during a pause in their negotiations on 5 September, congratulated the Germans on "produc[ing] an excellent Olympic Games," which at the same time "offered the Palestinians a showcase where they could bring their grievance to the millions watching around the world." In bringing the Games to Munich in the first place, the West Germans had an equally urgent message to convey. A letter in 1970 from Brandt's vice-chancellor and foreign minister, Walter Scheel, urging German embassies and consulates around the world to devote the forthcoming Olympics their utmost energies, outlined some of its main components:

More than ever before, the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and Kiel [where the sailing events took place] will attract the attention of the world to the Federal Republic of Germany. We must be aware that other nations will be more interested in and critical of us than they have been of other countries that have hosted the Games hitherto. The memory of the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, of our historical past, and not least the awareness of our peculiar political situation will play no insignificant part in this.

IOC statutes might state that cities rather than countries host the Games, but it is on their success or lack of it that the whole country and its population is judged.

This therefore offers us the unique opportunity to use the worldwide interest in sport to draw attention to the portrayal of our development and state and to project to the rest of the world the image of a modern Germany in all its political, economic, social, and cultural facets.

Bonn's diplomats would doubtless have sensed the Olympics had more to offer still. When the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Avery Brundage, made his valedictory speech a week before the Munich event, his tour d'horizon of recent host cities provided further insights into the allure and potential of Olympic regeneration:

The Games of the XVth Olympiad in 1956 in remote Melbourne ... represented the best investment Australia ever made.... Four years of positive, world-wide publicity: an enumeration of positive achievements in contrast to the reports of crime, war, political machinations and catastrophes that were disseminated in the news media, led to increased immigration and expanding tourism. The economy and industry were stimulated, and not only Australia, but the lands of the entire South Sea area were increasingly integrated into the modern world of the twentieth century.... Tokyo [in 1964] was able to accelerate its urban development by ten years. The city was practically newly built and will thereby always be more attractive and efficient.... Japan will one day reap a multiple of its investment in material and intellectual benefits.... [In Mexico 1968] the self-assurance of these peoples [sic] was strengthened, and particularly all Latin American countries were proud that one of them was capable of organizing this huge and expensive event just as well as the other capital cities of this world.

Brundage, like IOC presidents before and since, might have believed his own rhetoric, but the durability and continued desirability of the Olympic brand today speaks clearly of the positive outcomes of investing in and hosting the Games. In 1972, it is clear that the Federal Republic could hope to gain much from its investment: urban regeneration, civic boosterism, increased tourism, economic development, and, of course, the chance to overlay residual images of the recent past with new narratives about the country's political, economic, social, and cultural acumen. All in all, it was an irresistible opportunity.

The historian, however, must be cautious not to recount the West German Olympic project on such a simple storyboard or reduce it to the one-dimensionality of actor Michael Douglas's commentary in One Day in September: "The Germans saw the Games as an opportunity to erase the negative memories many still had of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which had been used for propaganda purposes." To a certain extent, such statements are true, but they conceal the richly textured and complex tableaux of discourses, ideas, and circumstances against which the 1972 event was developed and played out. The question of how "the Germans" saw the Games or rather which Germans saw the Games in which ways requires considerable teasing out for a start. For one, political power remained far from static in the period, the government changing twice in the six years prior to 1972—from right-liberal (CDU/CSU and FDP) via grand coalition (CDU/CSU and SPD 1966) to left-liberal (SPD and FDP 1969)—in line with the turbulent social climate of the late s ("1968"). For another, the idea for hosting the Games did not originate with the federal government but with an ambitious and opportunistic alliance between two particular individuals: Willi Daume, the head of West German sport, and Hans-Jochen Vogel, the mayor of Munich. Subsequently, Bonn was not solely or even predominantly responsible for their preparation, the Organizing Committee (OC) consisting, rather, of "an unusual and unique grouping" of "the Federal Republic, the Free State of Bavaria, and the State capital Munich" on the one hand and "individual representatives of the world of sport" on the other. Finally, in the IOC German officials had to negotiate the traditions and peculiarities of one of the world's most powerful but idiosyncratic international NGOs. Each of these aspects—the changing social and political climate in 1960s West Germany, the influence exercised on the Olympic project by a determined cluster of individuals, and the nature and agenda of the IOC—must be understood as essential factors in the formation of the Munich Games.


As Olympic history has shown, the Games have been used from their inception in "by host nations both to celebrate an historical legacy and to aspire to the expression of their modernity." In the Federal Republic of the 1960s, this dual focus on the past and the future-orientated present was writ large in debates about policy and national self-understanding. If the past had been repressed in the 1950s, the problematic legacy of Nazism lingering uncomfortably just below the surface, it returned with a vengeance in the 1960s. For whatever reasons the public and politicians let "bygones be bygones" in the first decade of the new Republic, the strategy became unworkable in the long-term. From the late s onward, a complicated interplay between internal and external stimuli led to a change in attitude toward the Nazi past in West Germany. An increased internalization of this history developed because of events at home, such as the Ulm Einsatzgruppen trial in 1958 (when the practice of exterminating Jews on the Eastern Front first came to public attention), the anti-Semitic wave of 1959 and 1960 (which soon encouraged ten Länder [federal states] to make the teaching of German history from 1933 to compulsory), and the first debate about the statute of limitations for Nazi crimes in 1960. Influences from abroad, such as the media drama of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961) and the continual waves of the German Democratic Republic's (GDR) destabilization campaigns, also played an important part. Just ten years after its foundation and anxious not to lose the moral high ground to its ideological rival, the Federal Republic had no option but to treat charges against its citizens with the utmost seriousness. With the clock ticking too on the (later extended) statute of limitations, war-criminals were increasingly brought to justice.

Remembering, therefore, became less "selective" in the years running up to the mid-1960s as the "burden of the past" took on ever more virulent tones in public debate. The student revolt of , which projected itself as the critical interrogator of the older generation's past, only radicalized a theme that had already been the subject of public debate for the best part of a decade. Although the eleven years from 1958 to 1969 marked the highpoint of both the public's demand for reflection on the Nazi past and the juridical activity aimed at punishing its crimes, the s remained a complex prism of perspectives. While the past increasingly featured in public debate about German identity, and its variegated forms of continuity into the present were critically examined, voices stressing German victimhood and the need to bring recent history to a close still retained their vigor. The number of those wishing to draw a line under Nazi crimes rose from 34 percent in 1958 to 67 percent in 1969—a fact exploited not only by the newly formed National Democratic Party (NPD, 1964), whose overall vote potential reached 15 percent in 1968, but also by mainstream politicians such as Franz Josef Strauß, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU). In 1969, Strauß, who chaired the committee responsible for constructing the Olympic venues (Olympia-Baugesellschaft) for three years, felt secure enough to declare: "[A] people that has achieved such remarkable economic success has the right not to have to hear anymore about 'Auschwitz.'" A year later, Willy Brandt's act of penitence, when he famously fell to his knees in the Warsaw ghetto, did not meet with universal popularity in West Germany. Some 48 percent told a Spiegel poll that the chancellor had exceeded his remit, and a few weeks later an assailant protesting the presumption of Brandt's gesture in the Polish capital punched him to the ground outside the offices of the 1972 OC in Munich. Leaving aside Brandt's extraordinary good humor on this occasion and the lax security that would later mar the Games themselves, the incident aptly summarizes the attitude of West German society to the past in the 1960s. This was, in Detlef Siegfried's words, "strangely ambivalent" and full of "disintegrative moments."

By 1965, the year in which the Munich Olympic bid was conceived, a paradoxical mix of heightened sensitivity and moral ambiguity toward the past had clearly been established. The divergence—which was to increase as the decade progressed—between the views and decisions of politicians and public-opinion formers and the attitudes of the general public was also already evident. The Auschwitz trial confronted Germans for the first time with the industrial scale of the Nazis' destruction of human life. By the time of its conclusion in August , those in favor of dropping such court cases in future had risen to 57 percent (from only 15 percent four years earlier during the Eichmann trial). At the same time, however, the Bundestag voted (in March 1965) to prolong the statute of limitations on war crimes (in the first instance to 1969, for thirty years thereafter, and indefinitely in 1979), despite opposition from 60 percent of the general population. In contrast to 1960, when original calls for an extension had emanated solely from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the decision in 1965 was supported by the Free Democratic Party (FDP) as well as a significant number of Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) members of parliament. But even as mainstream politicians moved closer to each other and away from their respective publics, they would nonetheless continue to exploit the past for party-political purposes. As before in 1961, the CDU made capital in the general election of 1965 out of Willy Brandt's wartime "desertion" of the fatherland to fight in the Norwegian resistance. In so doing, as Brandt's advisor Egon Bahr accurately observed, they were appealing to and feeding a significant "nationalistic propensity to prejudice."


Excerpted from The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany by Kay Schiller, Christopher Young. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Introduction
2. Urban, State, and National Capital: Buying, Paying for, and Selling the Games
3. The Legacy of Berlin 1936 and the German Past: Problems and Possibilities
4. Germany on the Drawing Board: Architecture, Design, and Ceremony
5. After "1968": 1972 and the Youth of the World
6. East versus West: German-German Sporting Tensions from Hallstein to Ostpolitik
7. The End of the Games: Germany, the Middle East, and the Terrorist Attack
8. Conclusion: Olympic Legacies


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"This is an outstanding book, which will undoubtedly be the definitive treatment of the subject for a long time to come."—German Studies Review

"Ambitious and exciting . . . a far-reaching yet richly textured portrait of the Federal Republic at a pivotal moment."—Central European History

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