On October 29, 1972, two Palestinians hijacked the Lufthansa plane “Kiel” on its way from Beirut to Frankfurt in order to free the Olympic bombers. A tape find documents the decisive hours. We heard it.
Munich – The kidnapper’s goal: the release of the three surviving Olympic assassins. They succeeded – and the 13 hostages on board the “Kiel” were ultimately released unharmed. But the kidnapping could easily have ended in a fiasco. A tape that documents conversations in the situation center of the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior and has recently been kept in the Bavarian State Archives gives an insight into the critical hours during the kidnapping. The Munich Merkur listened to it.
The Lufthansa Boeing 727 “Kiel” took off from Beirut on October 29, 1972, a Sunday, around 6 a.m. The flight is to lead via Ankara and Munich to Frankfurt. But shortly after take-off, one of the only 13 passengers, a Spanish journalist, noticed that a man had stood in the aisle in the middle of the cabin. “In the right hand a small pistol, in the left hand a white box the size of a thermos flask.” A piece of string sticks out of a pocket and is connected to the box. A bomb. The plane is now in the hands of two hijackers who introduce themselves as emissaries from an “Arab National Front for the Liberation of Palestine.”
To this day, numerous myths and speculations surround this plane hijacking, which was supposed to last 15 hours. Because it ended with the surprisingly smooth release of the surviving three (of originally eight) terrorists from the Munich Olympic attack almost two months earlier, on September 5, 1972. The three young Palestinians were extradited so quickly by the Bavarian state government that they are still there today there is a suspicion that it was all staged – to get rid of the annoying prisoners.
The outrage in Israel is still great today
The outrage in Israel is still great because the assassins remained unpunished. However, those responsible, including the then Bavarian Interior Minister Bruno Merk (CSU), have always denied having entered into a deal with the Palestinians.
Our newspaper was now able to listen to a tape from what was then the situation center of the Ministry of the Interior, in which the decisive hours between the kidnapping and the release are documented. A total of almost three hours of recordings – conversations between Merk and his officials in Munich on the one hand, and the crisis team that was hastily set up in Bonn on the other. In some cases, Merk and his counterpart, Federal Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP), phoned each other directly. The then Federal Transport Minister Lauritz Lauritzen (SPD) and the then Lufthansa boss Herbert Culmann can also be heard, reports merkur.de .
The Bavarian Ministry of the Interior only handed over the tape to the Bavarian Main State Archives this spring. It has now been digitized and released for research.
It is clear that the politicians in both Munich and Bonn were quite surprised by the kidnapping, that the situation was increasingly slipping away from them and that they reacted rather than actively acted.
The relevant passage on the tape, which documents a total of 3:44 hours of recording, begins with a call from the Bonn crisis management team on Sunday morning, in which “Bonn” first made sure whether Bavaria was willing to release the three hostage-takers from release Munich at all. The Bavarian official in the situation center was able to confirm this. He literally said: “Yes, of course. The Minister of Justice (Philipp Held, CSU – ed.), who is responsible, is here in the room and he made the decision. You will be released.”
The kidnapping was only a few hours old at the time. The machine had meanwhile landed in Nicosia on Cyprus, been refueled and is now back in the air. Initially on course for Bavaria – in the situation center there was talk of Nuremberg. But then the plane changed course and headed for Zagreb in what was then Yugoslavia. It was unclear whether it should land there – or in Bavaria? Now, around noon, Merk and Genscher personally discussed the modalities of a possible exchange of the three prisoners for the hostages. “According to the information available to us,” Merk explained to the German Minister of the Interior, “the kidnappers are not taking any risks. They won’t leave the plane, they won’t even let it be refueled in Munich, but they will be waiting for the prisoners on the runway.” However, there is a risk that they will simply continue flying afterwards – with the hostages. That absolutely must be prevented.
It was initially important for Genscher to state that the federal government was not advising against a release. Second, he pointed out to Merk that the Israeli government had opposed the exchange.
Well, they’re welcome to have us…
Merk’s reaction, however, was quite cool: “Well, they can like us, or do you have a different opinion,” he asked Genscher. However, he had no objections and just said “No, no”.
In the meantime, the three Munich terrorists had been taken from various prisons by helicopter and taken to Munich. The tape recording makes it clear that it was unclear for a long time whether they should be taken to Riem immediately or whether they should first wait in a Munich police prison. Merk was for Riem, the police against. Around noon, however, they arrived in Munich-Riem.
The fear of the passengers
The Boeing 727 with the 13 hostages was still circling in Yugoslav airspace. In the plane, the hijackers distributed alcohol to the passengers, and smoking was also allowed. Soon the whole floor was littered with empty cigarette packs. But the tension remained. “Whenever the plane falls into an air pocket, we’re afraid that the explosives will go off,” reported Spanish journalist Salvador Salazar Carrion of the Efe news agency, whose article appeared on October 31, 1972 in the newspaper La Vanguardia (Barcelona).
Now a third actor intervened that Sunday: the then Lufthansa boss Herbert Culmann. As soon as the news of the kidnapping had arrived, he had rushed from Cologne to Munich in a small Hawker Siddeley Condor aircraft and was now apparently willing to continue flying with the prisoners. On the tape you can hear Culmann calling the situation center and pointing out that time was short and the prisoners had to be transported quickly to Zagreb for exchange. The Boeing over Zagreb has “still 35 minutes of fuel” if you don’t start quickly in Munich “with the three people, let the plane fall down.”
Merk, however, was opposed to sending the prisoners out now and “just blindly handing them out,” as he put it. Culmann then suggested taking off, as instructions could then be received in the air. That slightly upset the officers in the situation center. He almost yelled into the phone: “You must not leave German airspace before we have the approval of the Yugoslav authorities. That’s out of the question.”
At 3:11 p.m. there was a new development. The situation center received the information that the kidnappers wanted to release the passengers first in an Arab country. Not so in Zagreb. Merk’s plan to achieve an exchange of hostages for prisoners in Yugoslavia had thus failed.
However, the machine with the three Palestinian prisoners in Riem had still not started. Even when the kidnappers threatened to break off contact, Merk continued to hesitate, as he explained to Genscher: He “believes that we will not agree to this condition” because if the three are released, “then we have achieved nothing at all.” Only when When he was informed that the Boeing hijackers threatened to blow up the machine, he gave in: The Hawker Siddeley should take off, but not leave German airspace. The small plane took off from Munich-Riem shortly before 4 p.m. On board, alongside the pilot and two crew members: Lufthansa boss Culmann, two Bavarian detectives, a ministerial director – and the three terrorists who survived the Munich Olympic attack with injuries.
Hardly in the air, the machine took a straight course to Zagreb – contrary to the instructions of the Bavarian Minister of the Interior, Bruno Merk (CSU), who wanted to wait and see. Hostages against terrorists, that was the deal. At least that’s what the Bavarian Minister of the Interior thought. But things turned out differently.
Then we can go home and tell Lufthansa to decide for themselves
It can be heard on the tape that the situation center was informed that the machine was “currently out of radio contact”. Merk considered a “breach of duty” to be “excluded”, but quickly had to be taught otherwise when the Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber – he can also be heard on the tape – came up with the news that the Hawker Siddeley was already in Yugoslav airspace . “Ha, that’s all sorts of things,” the officer on duty blurted out on the phone, and Schreiber can be heard commenting: “So contrary to the frequently repeated instruction.”
A little later, Merk also spoke to the Federal Transport Minister Lauritz Lauritzen (SPD), who was able to speak to Culmann in Zagreb and who reported that he had deliberately ignored the instructions. Literally: “Well, then we can go home and tell Lufthansa that they should decide for themselves what they think is good.”
Of course that’s big shit.
Federal Minister of the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP) came from Bonn with the critical question: “Why did you let the people out now?” The then State Secretary in the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior (and later Mayor of Munich), Erich Kiesl (CSU), confessed: ” So it is completely inexplicable to us.” Genscher added: It had been agreed that the small aircraft should not leave German airspace. Kiesl then: “They switched off and didn’t want any more contact with us.” Genscher reacted angrily: “Of course, if I may allow myself a private comment, that’s a big shit.” Kiesl agreed sheepishly: “We don’t have any powers downstairs more.”
When the small plane landed in Zagreb at around 5 p.m., the situation center in Munich completely slipped away. In some cases, the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior was not even able to establish radio contact with the Yugoslav airport. Even the press has better contacts in Zagreb than the government, Merk complained.
The situation center then registered helplessly that the three Olympic terrorists in Zagreb disembarked from the Hawker and approached the Boeing – but without the hostages in the “Kiel” having been released. “The plane is stationary. The three men are quickly approaching the plane,” observed Spanish journalist Salvador Salazar Carrion of the Efe news agency, who later wrote about his experiences. He was one of the 13 hostages and looked out of one of the plane windows at the airfield. Two people “lower the ladder down so the three Palestinians can climb up.” They were already on board, hugging, patting each other on the back. The passengers were also greeted happily by the three terrorists who had boarded – Carrion: “like a happy ending in a movie”.
In the situation center, Merk then learned that the Boeing was refueled and ready for takeoff. As is known today, the German Consul General Kurt Laqueur had signed a fuel card. The German crisis management teams must have been appalled by this as well – but the tape does not document that.
The hostages were still on board – but now with the three terrorists from Munich. Actually it was a fiasco. “I am very unhappy about this process,” says Merk at one point. But that shouldn’t necessarily come out. Genscher therefore asked Merk to exercise restraint in relation to the press, not to speak of Culmann’s “arbitrariness”. Towards the end of the tape recording, Minister of Transport Lauritzen reported and reported to Kiesl that Culmann had been told not to hold his own press conference at least – not that he was still “acting like a big hero”, as Kiesl said. All of this doesn’t look like a planned, secret exchange that was arranged long in advance.
The release of the prisoners could also easily have ended in disaster – because contrary to plan, hostages and kidnappers were now in the hands of the Palestinians. But nothing happened to the hostages – and contrary to Merk’s fears (“We run the risk that the hostages will get an appetite”), the kidnappers made no further demands. At around 7:25 p.m. – the plane was on its way from Zagreb to Tripoli at the time – the tape recording stopped.
The rest is known: Shortly after 9 p.m., the Lufthansa jet “Kiel” landed in Tripoli. There the two kidnappers disembarked with the three Olympic assassins and left the hostages, including a German, alone. The Spanish journalist especially praised the Lufthansa captain of the “Kiel”, Walter Claussen. “He’s got nerves of steel, he’s very calm, he’s actually the hero of it all. Thanks to his calm we survived the whole thing.” All were unhurt. Military, civilian police, airport employees now came into the machine. “For us there is a handshake and a thank you,” reported the journalist Carrion. He wondered, “Thank you – why? Were we good hostages?”
The three Olympic assassins gave a press conference in Tripoli, after which they were lost. For a long time it was assumed that the Israeli secret service had killed them. But two of the three assassins survived – they were recently interviewed (for a fee) for an ARD documentary. Nobody showed remorse.