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."
Germany Did Not Push for Terrorist's Extradition
PLO leader Yasser Arafat relented, and on January 1973, he made it clear that he had "officially decided" to comply with Germany's wishes. In return, he asked to be allowed to send an envoy to Bonn. Arafat wanted to secure his influence among the several thousand Palestinians living in West Germany at the time, whose donations were one of his most important sources of funding. His wish was granted, and in 1975 Abdallah Frangi, an Arafat confidant who was the jovial son of a Bedouin, became the head of the so-called Palestine Information Office on Kaiserstrasse in Bonn.
The Black September terrorists had tried to reach Frangi several times by telephone on the day of the Olympic massacre. Frangi narrowly escaped death in a Mossad revenge attack in October 1972.
In Bonn, Frangi openly championed the PLO's interests. Photos of receptions in the West German capital show the Arab lobbyist with Brandt, Scheel and former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Frangi's chutzpah was especially apparent ahead of the 1974 soccer World Cup, which was hosted by West Germany. According to the files, Frangi offered the Foreign Ministry a sort of anti-terror hotline. The PLO representative, who was married to a German woman from the western state of Hesse, explained that the Germans had nothing to fear in the way of attacks during the World Cup, because there were "no plans of this nature." Nevertheless, he added, he would make himself "available" just in case, and could be reached at the home of his wife's parents. In his memoirs, Frangi writes that the Munich murders were "no longer an issue" during talks in Bonn at the time.
This didn't change when the French police arrested one of the main culprits in 1977. Abu Daoud, a teacher from Jerusalem, had coordinated the Black September operation in Munich and left the country on the morning of the attack. When the German Justice Ministry received an inquiry from Paris as to whether there was any interest in an extradition, it referred the request to the relevant authorities in Bavaria.
In Munich, Alfred Seidl, a senior official in the state's Justice Ministry, recommended that Bonn support an extradition request by Israel instead of becoming directly involved. In this way, he argued, the German government "could possibly avoid having to issue its own extradition request or having Abu Daoud extradited to Germany."
The matter became too awkward for the French after a few days, and they allowed Abu Daoud to fly to Algeria. They too were worried about attacks being carried out on their territory.
The government of then Chancellor Schmidt and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher also viewed the Olympic massacre with cold pragmatism. A Palestinian government in exile would emerge from the PLO "sooner or later," a Foreign Ministry official noted, and charges of terrorism were not helpful in that respect. The German ambassador in Beirut wrote that because the attack had occurred a long time previously, the "bad blood on both sides has been cleared up," and that Bonn ought to try to objectify its relationship with the Palestinians.
In the fall of 1977, a member of Schmidt's staff at the Chancellery even met with Ali Salameh, probably the key mastermind of the Munich attack. As a representative of the Palestinians, Salameh, nicknamed the "Red Prince," demanded recognition of the PLO. In return, he offered that the PLO would not only distance itself from terrorism, but also become "actively involved in fighting terrorism." To its credit, Bonn turned down the deal.
Whether or not Germany's appeasement policy was a success is debatable. Despite Arafat's guarantee of security, it was mostly luck and focused police work that prevented further PLO attacks in Germany or against Germans abroad. When in 1979 the police arrested 11 Palestinians with explosives in West Berlin and at a number of border crossings, Frangi's friend, the armchair terrorist Hindi, asked the German Embassy in Beirut for a meeting. The files indicate that the mood was "relaxed and friendly."
Hindi openly admitted that the men had had orders to send parcel bombs to Israel. He also said that he would continue to "conduct such operations against Israel" and that he would have to "use other countries as operating bases." Hindi advised the Germans to take the Italians' approach, saying that Rome "tacitly" allowed him and his compatriots to operate in Italy.
What happened after that remains one of the secrets of the former West Germany. It is clear that the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) cooperated with the PLO, as evidenced by a telex from the embassy in Beirut reporting on a meeting between Hindi and a BKA official on June 14, 1980. According to the message, Hindi complained that the press had gotten wind of the connections between the PLO and the BKA. He also claimed that the leak was on the German side. An indiscretion like this could jeopardize cooperation, Hindi threatened, telling the BKA official that either the two organizations "continue working together in secret, or not at all."
Hindi died of cancer in 2010, and most of the others behind the Munich massacre are now dead, as well. One of the three terrorists whose release the PLO secured by hijacking a Lufthansa flight occasionally appears in documentary films. There is still a German warrant out for his arrest, but there is nothing to suggest that German authorities have ever tried to find him.
Given these circumstances, there is every indication that he will not be tried for the murder of the 11 Israelis and a German police officer, at least not in a German court.