News Tip: 'Munich' Likely to Promote German Reflection on Jews and Justice, Duke Professor Says

1972 Olympics massacre "still a relatively unexamined issue in Germany."

Steven Spielberg's new movie "Munich" -- about the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, and Israel's clandestine reprisals -- gives Germans an opportunity to reflect on their country's relationship with Jews, says a Duke University professor of German culture.

Since World War II, Germans have often shown good intentions toward Jews, but have sometimes also been ambivalent about what stance to take toward the country's history with European Jews and current relationship with Israel, says Peter McIsaac, Duke's Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of German.

The 1972 Munich Olympics were Germany's first since the fall of the Nazi regime. Eleven days into the games, Palestinian gunmen invaded the apartments of Israeli athletes and trainers, killing two and taking nine hostages. A failed rescue attempt by the German government left dead all nine hostages, five of the eight kidnappers and one German policeman. The three surviving kidnappers were arrested, but later set free as ransom for an airplane hijacked by Palestinians. The movie "Munich," which opens Friday, is a fictional rendering of Israel's secret efforts to hunt down the perpetrators and planners of the Munich massacre.

"The Munich massacre is symbolic of Germany's complicated relationship with both its own past and with Israel," McIsaac said. "The German government was eager to show itself a full member of the international community. But when the kidnapping happened, they botched the rescue of the athletes mostly by not making the athletes' survival their top priority; and then they tried to cover up how they handled it.

"It's still a relatively unexamined issue in Germany. Setting the terrorists free avoided their having to stand trial, which could have revealed the full extent of the government's failings. Lawsuits against the government for the deaths of the athletes could not meet the statue of limitations because the government delayed releasing relevant documents, and compensation was quietly negotiated with survivors. To this day, details about how police and politicians planned the rescue have dribbled out largely through government leaks, but there's never been a coherent and consistent public conversation about Munich," he said.

In suggesting that Spielberg's movie could revive German debate about the incident, McIsaac points to other media events -- including news coverage of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichman, the 1978 NBC TV series "Holocaust" and Spielberg's 1993 movie "Schindler's List" -- that he says sparked national reflection on the Holocaust.

"Maybe Spielberg's done it again," McIsaac said. "Maybe 'Munich' will prompt Germans to look again at their history and what justice they're responsible for."