Life And Art

The History Behind Munich

Separating truth from fiction in Spielberg’s movie.

Considering vengeance

Co-written by the playwright Tony Kushner and based in part on a book, Vengeance by George Jonas, that has been widely called into question, Steven Spielberg’s Munich is not a documentary. Indeed, it is full of distortions and flights of fancy that would make any Israeli intelligence officer blush. Before the opening credits, Spielberg informs us that the movie was “inspired by real events”—which raises the question, where in Munich does fact end and fiction begin?

The dark event at the heart of the movie is presented starkly, accurately for the most part, and well. This is the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists held 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, which led to a botched rescue attempt and the murder of the surviving athletes (two had already been killed) by the terrorists. (The hostage crisis is inserted sequentially throughout the film.) Much is left out. For instance, it would have been nice to know that it was German incompetence—their “rescue operation” was, operationally, a disaster—that led directly to the massacre. But a film can’t show everything, and the meat of Spielberg’s narrative is not the massacre itself but Israel’s response to it, a counter-terror campaign that has long been shrouded in mystery—and to some extent still is. It is here that artistic license overwhelms, when it doesn’t entirely dispense with, the true story of what happened after Munich.

In Munich, a hastily assembled covert assassination team is gathered by Golda Meir and given a list of targets—the men responsible for the attack. There are 11 Palestinians (a convenient match to the 11 dead Israeli athletes) who must pay the price. It didn’t happen that way. Israel did authorize and empower a counter-terror assassination campaign in Munich’s wake (more on that below), but no list of targets was ever given to an assassination team. Indeed, there was no “one team” charged with carrying out any sort of ongoing revenge operation. Specific targets were identified and then approved for assassination by top Mossad officials, and ultimately by the prime minister, as evidence grew in Israeli eyes that these individuals were likely to plan further attacks. Palestinian operatives, including many who had nothing to do with the Munich Massacre, were sentenced to death on a case-by-case basis. The list of targets was constantly changing. Assassination teams were sent out, mission by mission, as evidence and opportunity warranted.

The assassins in Munichare presented as quintessential everyday guys—patriots who want to defend their country and who gradually grow disillusioned, guilt-ridden, and paranoid. The Mossad teams did draw from the ordinary Israeli population, but they were well-trained professionals intent on their missions. In the movie, a Mossad agent gingerly asks a target if he “knows why we are here?” That’s farfetched. In interviewing more than 50 veterans of the Mossad and military intelligence, I found not a single trace of remorse. On the contrary, Mossad combatants thought they were doing holy work.

Munich terrorist

The assassins in Munich are on their own—the Mossad denies their existence and cuts them off—much as Cold War spies were said to be. In fact, assassination teams were the head of a spear; behind them were analysts and informational gathering units in Israel and in Europe, a whole network that was focused on both supplying the agents with information and properly directing their operations.

As Spielberg’s assassination squad begins work in Europe, they come to rely on a kind of freelance intelligence merchant who works for a shadowy organization, “Le Group,” that trades the names and locations of targets for big money. Whether or not such an organization existed, or might have, the Mossad never relied on such an entity. Security apparatuses don’t function that way. The Mossad gathered its own intelligence, relying mainly on human intelligence from Palestinian informants living in Europe and the Middle East. Operatives recruited and directed these sources all over Europe, while analysts in Israel sifted through mountains of data looking for concrete terror plans—and potential perpetrators. Unfortunately, much of the storyline of Munich concerns this fanciful “Le Group” subplot.

The Munich Massacre triggered a fundamental change in Israel’s approach to terrorism—a “Munich Revolution” (the phrase was used by the Mossad) that endures as a mindset and an operational protocol today. Finding and killing the perpetrators of the Munich Massacre was a part of that campaign only insofar as the men involved were deemed likely to act again. Revenge was the atmosphere—but preventing future attacks by networks that Israel saw as threatening its citizens was the goal. Mistakes were made, innocents were killed, and Israel’s government and intelligence agencies never publicly questioned their right to carry out assassinations on foreign soil. Indeed, the true story of Israel’s response to Munich is if anything more ambiguous than Spielberg’s narrative.

But Spielberg has bought into one of the myths of the Mossad—that after Munich they staged a revenge operation to hunt down and assassinate everyone responsible. Israelis, too, bought into this myth (myself included, at one time) which a shocked public demanded—but that doesn’t make it true. Spielberg, in inventing a story about violence begetting violence “inspired by real events” is raising questions worth asking. Even so, Israel’s response to Munich was not a simple revenge operation carried out by angst-ridden Israelis. Both the larger context, and the facts on the ground, rarely get in Spielberg’s way. A rigorous factual accounting may not be the point of Munich, which Spielberg has characterized as a “prayer for peace.” But as result, Munich has less to do with history and the grim aftermath of the Munich Massacre than some might wish.