Munich Olympics Massacre: Files Reveal Neo-Nazis Helped Palestinian Terrorists

By Gunther Latsch and Klaus Wiegrefe

Forty years ago, the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches overshadowed the Munich Summer Olympics. Though it was never proved, left-wing extremists were suspected of working with the Palestinian terrorists behind the operation. But previously unreleased files seen by SPIEGEL prove that neo-Nazis were involved instead -- and officials knew about it.

Photo Gallery: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre Photos
DPA

The men who were arrested in the Munich house of former Waffen-SS member Charles Jochheim late on Oct. 27, 1972 were armed like soldiers on their way to the front. In one suitcase, police found three Kalashnikov automatic rifles, six magazines, 174 rounds of ammunition, two pistols, a revolver and six Belgian-made hand grenades.

The two men who were arrested were also carrying other weapons. Wolfgang Abramowski had weapons hidden in his waistband, while his accomplice, Willi Pohl, was carrying two pistols and a hand grenade, according to a Munich police investigative report.

A fellow member of a right-wing extremist splinter group calling itself the "National Socialist Fighting Group for a Greater Germany" had tipped off the police about Pohl and Abramowski. The two men allegedly planned to use the weapons to free a fellow extremist who was in prison, but investigators soon questioned whether this story was true.

Among the documents Abramowski and Pohl were carrying was a threatening letter to a Munich judge tasked with clearing up one of the most shocking crimes in postwar German history: the massacre at the Munich Summer Olympics.

On Sept. 5, 1972, Palestinian militants with a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist group called "Black September" took nine Israeli athletes hostage and demanded the release of several hundred Palestinians from Israeli prisons. When the police attempted to free the Israelis at the Fürstenfeldbruck military airport, where they were being held in two helicopters, the terrorists murdered all of their hostages. A police officer also died in the firefight. Three of the Palestinians survived, and the judge to whom the letter found in Pohl's and Abramowski's luggage was addressed was in charge of the case against them.

In the letter, Black September threatened to retaliate against the judge "if he continues to allow Israel intelligence agents to participate in the interrogations of the Olympic terrorists." An examination of the weapons seized from Pohl and Abramowski proved that this was no joke by right-wing extremist copycats.

Seeing the Attack in a New Light

The "final report" by Munich police, dated July 23, 1973, states: "An additional indication of the relationship between the crimes committed by Pohl and his accomplices and the attack on the Olympic Village in Munich is that the … confiscated machine carbines and hand grenades have the same characteristics as the weapons used by the militants."

This evidence practically proved that the suspicion that German neo-Nazis Pohl and Abramowski were collaborating with the Palestinian terrorists was in fact true.

The police report is part of more than 2,000 pages of files that the Cologne-based domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), recently released in response to a request by SPIEGEL. The documents include classified analyses and memos, the agency's correspondence with the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence service, and the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA), as well as police reports. Based on these previously classified documents, is it now necessary to consider the story of the Olympic attack in a new light?

Yes, at least in part.

Until now, many experts assumed that it was left-wing extremists who had had ties to Black September, helping the terrorists find places to stay in Munich, for example. There were also indications of cooperation between the two groups, such as a pamphlet by Red Army Faction (RAF) founder Ulrike Meinhof, who later praised the massacre for making "the essence of imperialist control transparent." There was also a statement by someone who had left the terrorist organization, who told SPIEGEL in 1978 that another RAF member had told him that "Revolutionary Cells," a splinter group, had had its "fingers in the pie" when finding places to stay for the Palestinian militants.

But according to the released documents, such statements must now be treated as myths.

Black September didn't need any German logistic assistance. Some of the men had arrived in Germany weeks before the hostage crisis, and they had plenty of cash. They found accommodations on their own, which was not easy in Munich, where everything was booked because of the Olympics. Instead of staying together, as planned, they had to take rooms in various hotels.

One of the leaders, nicknamed "Tony," even took out an ad in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, in which he wrote that he was "looking for living with family." Herta N., the unsuspecting former wife of an attorney, rented a room to "Tony."

Neo-Nazis Instead of Left-Wing Extremists

In a letter to their foreign intelligence colleagues at the BND in early 1973, BfV intelligence agents concluded that there was "no evidence" that German left-wing extremists had supported the Palestinian terrorists.

But that was not the case with Pohl and Abramowski, the German neo-Nazis. Less than two months before the massacre, police in the western city of Dortmund sent a telex to the BfV containing information of potential interest to the intelligence agency. The subject line read: "Presumed conspiratorial activity by Palestinian terrorists." The telex discussed Willi Pohl and his relationship with Mohammed Daoud, whose nom de guerre was Abu Daoud, the mastermind of the Munich attack.

Could the massacre have been prevented if the BfV, but also the state offices of criminal investigation in Düsseldorf and Munich and the BKA, had properly assessed the importance of the telex?

Today Willi Pohl is a successful author of crime fiction who writes under a different name. He convincingly renounced terrorism and violence decades ago and even wrote a novel about it. Pohl has also written the script for many a northern German episode of the popular crime show "Tatort." Now 68, he only agreed to speak with SPIEGEL on the condition that he would not be pictured in the article.

In the summer of 1972 Pohl, born in the region of the Soviet Union formerly known as East Prussia, was a wiry 28-year-old blond man from a poor background with several convictions for grand theft under his belt. He had also stolen money from his employer, who, as a result, felt motivated to tell the police that Pohl supported the radical wing of the PLO and had met with a man of "Arab appearance" who was staying at the Römischer Kaiser Hotel in Dortmund. The police quickly learned that a man named Saad Walli was staying at the hotel. Saad Walli was an alias for Abu Daoud.

In the now-released documents, there is no indication that the state offices of criminal investigation, the BKA or the BfV, which had all been notified by the Dortmund police, did anything to find the suspicious Walli. As a result, according to the documents, Abu Daoud, a.k.a. Saad Walli, was able to stay, unchallenged, at the Eden Hotel Wolff in Munich before and during the attack, meeting with the militants in his hotel room and calling his associates in Libya and Tunisia from there.

Unknowingly Involved?

The connection between Pohl and Abu Daoud was established through a German neo-Nazi who had fought with the Palestinians in Jordan. Abu Daoud, then a 35-year-old teacher from Jerusalem with a boyish face and a thin moustache, later stated that he was indifferent to the political views of the blue-eyed Pohl, and that he had considered people like Pohl to be "very useful for our future."

In Dortmund, Daoud needed Pohl's help to buy him several Mercedes sedans, which Pohl did. Daoud was also looking for a professional passport forger, and Pohl introduced him to a friend from prison, Abramowski. The 28-year-old, also a displaced ethnic German from East Prussia, was considered a pro.

Today Pohl is almost certain that he was unknowingly involved in the preparations for the Olympic attack. "I drove Abu Daoud halfway across Germany, and he met with Palestinians in various cities. In Cologne, the PLO official also met with Arabs wearing suits and ties. Pohl believes that they were diplomats affiliated with the Libyan Embassy in Bonn. According to Pohl, he and Abramowski left Germany at the end of July and traveled to Lebanon via Rome.

As Abramowski later told the state security division of the BKA, he and Pohl moved into a flat-roofed bungalow in a village near Beirut. Almost every evening, a PLO official picked up Abramowski and took him to a print shop in the capital, where, according to Abramowski, he forged Kuwaiti and Lebanese passports, changed names on American and French documents and exchanged passport photos. It is still unclear today whether the Munich attackers used passports from Abramowski's workshop to enter Germany.

According to Pohl, he still had no knowledge of the planned attack in Munich at the time. It was only on Aug. 24, some 12 days before the massacre, that the Palestinians became more specific and spoke of a "spectacular terrorist attack."

Although Pohl does not remember hearing the word "Munich," there was talk of a hostage-taking operation in Germany, in which the Palestinians planned to exchange 20 Israelis for some 200 fellow Palestinian militants in Israeli prisons. The Palestinians insisted that it would be a bloodless incident, and they asked the two Germans what they thought the German public would think about it.

A Crazy Plan

Pohl says that he proposed an international press conference in Vienna, which he would give together with a PLO official. According to Pohl, he flew to Vienna via Paris, which was corroborated by the statement his friend Abramowski made to the BKA foreign intelligence agency at the time, namely that Pohl was in Austria during the Olympics "to take care of something for the Palestinians there."

When he saw on television that the hostage-taking operation had failed, Pohl left the country. A few days later, he was back in the Middle East, where PLO intelligence chief Abu Iyad was determined to get revenge. In Pohl's account of events, he says that Iyad blamed the German authorities, more than anyone else, for the fact that the Munich operation had turned into such a disaster. Besides, says Pohl, Iyad believed a rumor that Israeli officers had led the failed rescue effort by German police.

From the standpoint of the PLO intelligence chief, this meant that Germany had intervened in the war between Israel and the Palestinians, making Germany an enemy that had to be dealt with. According to Pohl, Iyad asked to suggest possible German targets of future attacks. A few days later in Cairo, Pohl presented what he now calls a crazy plan.

He proposed occupying several city halls throughout Germany and taking local politicians hostage. Then, on Christmas Eve of 1972, a group of militants would storm the Cologne Cathedral. The goal was to force Germany and other countries to comply with a list of demands. The operation was given the code name "Mosque," says Pohl.

In mid-October, Pohl and Abramowski traveled to Madrid to receive weapons for these and other operations. They boarded a train to Munich, via Paris, taking the weapons with them. This is Pohl's version, which essentially corresponds to information in the released documents.

Astonishing Leniency

But before they could put their plan into action, Pohl and Abramowski were betrayed and arrested. The hand grenades that were found with the two neo-Nazis prompted investigators to conclude that they had to be in close contact with the masterminds of the Olympic massacre. According to one police report, the grenade stemmed from an "extremely rare manufacturing operation." They were Belgian grenades containing Swedish explosives that had been produced solely for Saudi Arabia. The PLO terrorists had used exactly the same grenades to murder their hostages during the failed rescue effort at Fürstenfeldbruck.

Of course, this raises the question of whether the same radical right-wing network had already brought the weapons for the Munich attackers to Bavaria on the same route through Madrid and Paris. The question remains unanswered to this day. Pohl denies that this was the case. He says that the route through Madrid was his idea, and that it was only used after the Olympics. Instead, he assumes that Libyan diplomats in Germany helped bring the Kalashnikovs and hand grenades for the Munich terrorists into the country.

The German courts treated Pohl and Abramowski with astonishing leniency. The investigations into suspected violations of the War Weapons Control Act and "membership in a criminal organization" came to nothing, even though the exhibits included "operation plans for hostage-taking" that "implied the kidnappings of unidentified personalities in Essen, Bochum and Cologne."

In 1974, the two Germans were merely convicted of illegal possession of firearms. Abramowski was sentenced to eight months and Pohl to 26 months in prison. Only four days after sentencing, Pohl was released and fled to Beirut. There is nothing in the files to explain the reasons behind such leniency.

Perhaps the authorities feared that the Palestinians could also try to gain Pohl's freedom with the same approach they had used to secure the release of the three surviving members of the Olympic attack operation: by hijacking a German airliner. A few days after Pohl's arrest, terrorists from the PLO's Fatah faction hijacked a Lufthansa flight bound for Frankfurt. The German government gave in to their demands, and the three were flown to Libya.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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