From the Archive "The Worst Night in the History of the Federal Republic"

According to German Chancellor Willy Brandt believes, the murders in the Olympic Village have "turned back the clock." Arabs accuse Germans of betrayal while Jews see Munich as a place "near Dachau."

Editor's Note: The following leader first appeared in the Sept. 11, 1972 issue of DER SPIEGEL. We have translated the story to coincide with the opening of Steven Spielberg's "Munich" on Thursday at theaters in Germany and Israel. You can find SPIEGEL's cover story  on the film and an exclusive interview with director Steven Spielberg on SPIEGEL ONLINE.

It seems doubtful that this disastrous event for mankind and the German nation could have been prevented. An analysis of what happened in Munich shows that the crisis team sent to resolve the situation ended up enmeshed in a crisis of its own, prompting the head of Israeli intelligence to characterize German efforts as "obvious dilettantism."

The murders, universally condemned by everyone from Willi Daume to Indira Gandhi, from East Germany's Neues Deutschland to the South China Morning Post, have been called crazy, gruesome, senseless, outrageous, despicable and ghastly. Some even invoked images of social and philosophical anguish, with the US State Department calling the incident an "attack on human society" and The Manila Daily Bulletin dubbing it a "Crime Against Mankind."

But hardly anyone was asking what exactly they meant by society and mankind. And it came as no surprise that the shots fired by 20-year-old Palestinian guerillas and 30-year-old Bavarian rural police officers were necessary to yank the world out of the Elysian fields and Olympic emotions of Oberwiesenfeld and thrust it back into its political field of woes. The international anthem of those who were driven from their paradise was reflected in the pain of lost illusions, and in this case the illusion is the very idea of the Olympics.

The magic of the Olympics seemed certain to prevail, in a summer that for once would not be dominated by soldiers. America was getting out of Vietnam (though dropping bombs was part of its exit strategy), Mao's China had lost it horrible image for American capitalists and German Christians alike, the Middle East no longer seemed to be moving in the direction of imminent war but instead was inching toward a distant peace, and the "global civil war" being waged against legitimacy and authority, against the collective madness of the world, was subsiding.

On its cover, under the date "2-8 September," Britain's Economist celebrated what it called the "summer in which the fires were extinguished," and in which only the Olympic flame continued to flicker. Nahum Goldmann, President of the World Jewish Congress, saw a "new era" dawning between Israel and the Arabs, now that little Egypt had shown the big Soviets the door.

With equal parts relief and torture, the globe, feeling the Olympic spirit, took note of the fact that white Africans were being booted so that black Africans could stay. Once again, the Olympics had somehow bartered its way out of a need to acknowledge reality, so that its athletes could jump, swim and row to their hearts' content.

A pseudo-war over meters and seconds certainly provided the bitterly competitive stadium soldiers with subjective experiences, the joy of victory and the envy of defeat. Although belief in the impossible -- isolating and domesticating the evil battle of the arena -- was necessary to change the world, as communist philosopher Roger Garaudy demands in his latest book, "L'Alternative," it was and remains insufficient.

When the group "Black September" lodged its own appeal against the supremacy of illusion, the world was suddenly in shock and the clichés of mourning began growing rampant over what was still a lost paradise. New York's shrill Daily News called it the "Day of the Jackals," while Hamburg's timid Die Zeit described what it called the "Worst Night in the History of the Federal Republic." The killers were quickly demonized as "cynical murderers" (Daume), "criminals of the worst kind" (Nixon) and "sick brains" (Hussein).

The oily Olympic idea had been haphazardly and "gruesomely destroyed" (Swedish radio), "brutally destroyed" (Die Zeit) or -- oddly enough -- has proven itself to be "more powerful than terror and violence" (International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage). But the real issue was that suppressed reality was simply showing its true face, one that is neither deeply evil nor angelically pure.

The conflagration in the Middle East, prematurely thought to have been extinguished, was raging once again. Israeli bombers penetrated more deeply than ever into Syria, almost reaching the Turkish border. The extreme "Jewish Defence League" called for the murder of Arab diplomats. The Jewish state found itself once again fixated on the revenge that its political survival, but not its moral integrity, demands.

The Arab governments, halfway willing to compromise, again felt forced into at least a verbal solidarity -- against the Jews and the Germans -- with the Palestinians, whom they had already abandoned before.

The Germans, in 1972, had just escaped the stench of anti-communism, and they believed they were capable. Thirty-six years after 1936, they thought they had earned their Olympic virginity once again. Jews and Arabs, Russians, Mongolians and even East Germans were West Germany's guests under a bright, monumental acrylic tent. Who in their right minds could have questioned the existence of an Olympic spirit!

"You used to send them to Dachau"

But the Germans were not allowed to overcome their past by sprinting and jumping their way through the Olympics, as they were gradually overcome by traditional self-pity. Israel's refusal to give in to political blackmail limited the German authorities' options in their efforts to free the nine Israeli hostages. And when US citizens suggested that the terrorists would simply escape, together with their hostages, Americans called the German embassy to say: "you used to send them Dachau, and now."

Finally the Germans weren't falling over themselves to kill Jews. Instead, they were desperate to save Jews -- an effort that nonetheless lead to the deaths of the hostages, turning the world's attention more than ever to the short geographic distance between Munich and Dachau. Cairo's Information Minister Sayyat even claimed that the hostages had been killed "by German bullets."

"The emotions this has raised in America and elsewhere represent a setback by many, many years for German foreign policy. The clock has been turned back," said Chancellor Willy Brandt, who had hoped that the peaceful image of the Olympics would somehow rub off on Germany's image in the world. Indeed, the chancellor sounded almost threatening when he said: "I can only listen to this for a few more days, and then I'll have to begin setting things straight."

As certain as it is that the Munich massacre has damaged Germany's reputation abroad, it is just as obvious that the shots at Fürstenfeldbruck will continue to resonate in domestic politics for years to come. The incident has deeply affected the newly restored self-image of the Germans, who felt secure enough to bring the magic of the Olympics to their own country, but nevertheless lacked the confidence to ignore the inevitable "Gestapo" slurs and the accusations of not having adequately protected their Olympics against lunatics.

During a night of uncertainty, government spokesman Conrad Ahlers was quick to credit the administration with what at that point appeared to be a successful liberation of the hostages. Even Franz Josef Strauss of the CSU was on board, as long as the promise of success seemed to be in the cards. Flamboyantly and without being asked, he forced his way into the crisis management team and the helicopters that were to be used in the rescue effort. But the minute it became clear that the effort had failed, he quickly withdrew from the limelight. The chancellor reluctantly chided Strauss's behavior, saying that "there are certain kinds of events that attract people the way flies are attracted to light."

On the day after the drama, campaigner Rainer Barzel did his best to fill the gap Strauss had left behind. Cautiously (because he wasn't quite sure of the extent to which his friends in the Christian Social Union, or CSU, were involved), Barzel threatened to settle a few scores: "Once the Olympics have ended, but only after our guests have departed, we will ask the questions that remain."

The chancellor, after initially limiting himself to calling for a public investigation into the extent to which Bavaria, a CSU-ruled state, was responsible for giving the orders to shoot, was soon speaking to journalists and launching serious accusations against the Bavarians, accusations he felt were justified by a series of scandalous mistakes that had been made in the failed effort to liberate the hostages. Brandt was quick to point out what he called the "abysmal difference between what was planned and what actually happened."

It was only Interior Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, a member of the Free Democrat Party, who, in a telephone call, managed to convince the chancellor to recant ("The administration cannot come across as being so frivolous") -- but it was too late. Munich, a taboo issue until then, had already become deeply embedded in the election campaign. The Olympic flame could well turn into a chilly experience for the Germans.