In the busy streets of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, hardly anyone noticed the three Buick sedans that came to a stop just before the corner of Rue Verdun. Several couples got out of the cars. They were dressed casually and looked like tourists. Some of the people were in fact wearing blonde wigs and women's clothing, which wasn't recognizable from a distance.
In fact, the couples were all men, members of an Israeli special forces unit operating in enemy territory.
At about 1:30 a.m., they entered an apartment building. They rushed up the stairs to the upper floors, pulled Uzi submachine guns and explosives out from under their baggy clothing and received a radio message from their commander ordering them to blow open the doors to several apartments. They immediately opened fire, shooting and killing Abu Youssef, Kamal Nasser and Kamal Adwan, three senior officials with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Youssef's wife and a female neighbor were also killed.
At the time, Operation Spring of Youth, carried out by Israel's Mossad intelligence agency and the Israeli army in the early morning hours of April 10, 1973, was probably the most spectacular counterterrorism operation in the history of the Jewish state. After the attack, the men fled in their Buicks to the Beirut sea front, where they boarded inflatable boats and were taken back out to a waiting speedboat. The episode was vividly portrayed as a high-speed escape in the dead of night in director Steven Spielberg's film "Munich."
'New Basis of Trust'
Operation Spring of Youth was part of a revenge campaign the Israelis waged against the backers of the Munich massacre of Sept. 5-6, 1972. Black September, a terrorist group with ties to the PLO, had killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in an attack during the Munich Olympics. After the Lebanon operation, the government in Tel Aviv gave the returning Israeli elite troops a hero's welcome.
Walter Nowak, 48, the then German ambassador to Lebanon, condemned the Israeli action, saying that the dead Palestinians were among the most "rational and responsible" members of the PLO. A day after the retaliatory strike, the outraged diplomat wrote a letter to government authorities in Bonn, the then-German capital, saying that it was "not to be ruled out" that the Israelis had killed Abu Youssef and the others to hinder the peace process in the Middle East. "Those who don't want to negotiate are bothered by those they might be expected to face in negotiations," he wrote.
Nowak's idiosyncratic assessment stemmed from the mission the ambassador was pursuing at the time. Nowak had met with Abu Youssef, one of the founders of Black September, about a week before his death. In the two-hour conversation, he offered Abu Youssef and other backers of the Munich attack the prospect of creating "a new basis of trust" between them and the German government. There was even talk of a secret meeting in Cairo between then Foreign Minister Walter Scheel, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and Abu Youssef.
The Munich attack had occurred only six months earlier. Despite the still-vivid images of masked terrorists on the balconies of the Olympic Village and a burned-out helicopter on the tarmac at the NATO airbase at Fürstenfeldbruck, there was already active but secret diplomatic communication between Germans and Palestinians. West German representatives were talking to men like Abu Youssef, Ali Salameh and Amin al-Hindi, all of them masterminds of the Munich murders. Even the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), which is obligated to prosecute criminals, was involved in meetings, according to documents in the Political Archives of the German Foreign Ministry and the Federal Archive in the western city of Koblenz, which SPIEGEL has now analyzed.
The motives were plain. Bonn knew that the Palestinians craved international recognition. Any contact with West German representatives, even in secret, upgraded the PLO's status as an institution. In return, the government of then Chancellor Willy Brandt and Vice-Chancellor Walter Scheel hoped to protect Germany from further attacks. But the price they had to pay in return appears to have been high.
Spirit of Appeasement
In the coming weeks, during events to mark the 40th anniversary of the attack, the question will once again be raised as to why the German courts never tried any of the perpetrators or backers of the Munich massacre. The documents that are now available suggest one answer in particular: West Germany didn't want to call them to account.
In the first few weeks after the attack, German government offices in Bonn were imbued with a spirit of appeasement. From the Israeli perspective, it felt like a bitter irony of history that it involved Munich -- a city that became a symbol of the Western powers' appeasement of Hitler after the Munich Agreement permitting Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland was signed there in 1938.
Although the Munich attack involved multiple murders, the language in the files oddly downplays what happened there. Then-Chancellor Brandt is quoted as saying that the Olympic massacre was a "crazy incident," while Paul Frank, a state secretary in the Foreign Ministry, refers to it simply as the "events in Munich." Diplomats and senior Interior Ministry officials upgraded the status of Black September by calling it a "resistance group" -- as if its acts of terror had been directed against Hitler and not Israeli civilians.
At the Foreign Ministry, in particular, some officials were apparently very sympathetic to the Palestinians. Walter Nowak, the German ambassador to Lebanon, once told Abu Youssef that the Germans were a people "with a substantial number of refugees," because of the fact that ethnic Germans had been expelled from parts of Central and Eastern Europe after World War II. (Nowak himself was born in Silesia, which is now part of Poland, back when it belonged to Germany.) This, he added, made them more understanding of the Palestinian situation than other nations.
A number of comments even create the impression that it wasn't only Black September but also the Israelis who had committed murder in West Germany. According to speaking notes for Foreign Minister Scheel dated October 1972, the parties in the Middle East conflict had a tendency to take their disputes to noninvolved countries. It was up to Bonn to defend itself against such actions "by both sides of the conflict" (emphasis in the original).
'The Munich Chapter Was Closed'
At the time, there were widespread fears of further attacks. The intelligence services regularly reported on plans to hijack German airliners. In most cases, they warned that hijackings could be used to secure the release of the three Olympic killers who had survived the firefight with the police in Fürstenfeldbruck.
And then, on Oct. 29, the warnings became reality. A group of PLO terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa flight en route to Frankfurt. The Bavarian state government immediately released the three prisoners, who were flown to Libya via Zagreb.
Paul Frank, the senior Foreign Ministry official, told the Libyan ambassador with relief that, from Germany's standpoint, "the Munich chapter was closed" as a result of the release. The German government chose not to request the extradition of the three terrorists from Libya. In a memo to the Chancellery, Frank wrote: "We should be pleased that the whole thing has calmed down sufficiently."
Frank pushed for a "fundamental clarification of the relationship with the Palestinians." Because the conservative-led German government in the mid-1960s was considered pointedly pro-Israel, key Arab countries had broken off diplomatic relations with Bonn. Egypt and Algeria had only brought ambassadors back to Bonn shortly before the 1972 Olympics. Frank speculated that further attacks by Black September could threaten the German-Arab rapprochement. That, in turn, could jeopardize Germany's oil supply and export contracts. This prompted Frank and his diplomats to seek direct contact with the PLO at the end of 1972, first in Cairo and then in Beirut.
While Chancellor Brandt issued a public promise to the Israelis that he would "not capitulate to terrorism," Foreign Ministry sources suggest a different interpretation of events. Helmut Redies, a Middle East expert at the Foreign Ministry, merely asked the PLO to exclude West Germany and its citizens from its attacks. "It is critical to us that the Palestinians respect public safety in West Germany, and that no operations are conducted on the soil of the Federal Republic, or against German individuals and facilities abroad."