With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

How Accurate is Munich?

“The world was watching in 1972 as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics. This is the story of what happened next.” Thus begins the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s recently Oscar-nominated film Munich. While this “inspired by a true story” movie, which covers the revenge missions the Mossad Israeli spy agency took against the group responsible for the massacre – Black September – has received much critical praise, the claim that it is factually accurate is suspect. Indeed, we have many reasons to believe that in a number of ways it is grossly inaccurate as a work of history.

How Accurate Was the Composition of the Group of Assassins?

Even basic facts about the Mossad’s operation, such as the composition of the hit teams, are most likely depicted inaccurately in the film. According to an article by Reuters journalist Dan Williams, contrary to Munich, which portrays the group of assassins as being entirely Israeli, one of the original members of the squad was a Danish-born volunteer who was not trained by the intelligence agency. Furthermore, while the hit team in the film is composed entirely of men, former Mossad agent Gad Shimron says that teams in the field always include some women in order to avoid arousing suspicion. "It's standard practice to include female agents in such operations," he told Reuters. “Anyone who has been on a stakeout knows that having a lady on hand helps you avoid being spotted.” Shimron also said that unlike in the film, the revenge squads probably did not contain document forgers, as such personnel would not have the time necessary to produce high quality documents due to the short duration of their missions. The team of assassins was most likely much larger than the five-man group in the movie as well. Mossad veterans told Reuters that because of their high priority, every reprisal operation involves a massive number of field agents. Moreover, contrary to the film, in which then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir handpicks the leader of the mission, Avner, Meir had nothing to do with the selection of the teams responsible for tracking down and eliminating the members of Black September involved in the massacre. Indeed, although Munich accurately portrays her as authorizing the operation, Shimron says that Meir “had nothing to do with Mossad personnel.”

How Accurate Was the Assassins’ Methodology?

The film almost certainly inaccurately depicts the tactics and training of the hit teams as well. While in Munich, the group of assassins obtains the vast majority of its information from a mysterious Frenchman; in actuality the Mossad agents received information from a variety of sources, such as paid informants, other Israeli case officers, and friendly European intelligence agencies. Moreover, every assassination carried out by the hit teams is depicted in the film as being done with little to no practice beforehand. Mossad veterans claim, however, that each group of agents involved in the operation underwent extensive “test runs” prior to the actual attempts. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one former operative told Reuters, "We would set up 'models', by choosing areas in Israel that resembled the place where the person in question would be hit. Then we would drill to make sure the mission went without a hitch.” Furthermore, while Avner and his colleagues spend months tracking and killing their targets with virtually no contact with their superiors, the same former operative said that the Mossad’s agents actually are in the field for a maximum of several weeks at a time.

How Accurate Were the Events of the Revenge Mission?

Munich also falsely depicts a number of events that occurred throughout the revenge squad’s mission. Perhaps most significantly, it does not show the hit team’s July 1973 assassination of a Moroccan man unconnected with the massacre and the series of events that followed this incident. Because the murder took place in Lillehammer, Norway, the Norwegian government began tracking the operatives, eventually capturing the aforementioned Danish volunteer. The authorities were then able to create a paper trail using the receipts he saved to locate, capture, and prosecute the rest of the team. It is to prevent such a thing, Shimron insisted, that Mossad agents are discouraged from maintaining financial records while they are in the field. “Agents are expected to account for their expenses, but not if it means incurring the risk of discovery,” he told Reuters. “They can just as easily declare their expenses from memory when they return home, and it's accepted on trust.” It is highly unlikely, therefore, that the Mossad operatives involved in the reprisals would be required to keep their receipts, as they were in the film. Furthermore, while in the movie three members of the revenge squad are assassinated, historian Michael Bar-Zohar, who wrote a book on the history of the revenge operations, told Reuters that only two officers involved in the mission were killed throughout its entirety. He also stated that, contrary to what Munich seems to imply, Black September was most likely not responsible for these assassinations because it had been effectively “wiped off the map for months” as a result of the Mossad’s operations against it. Moreover, although the field agents in Munich are tracking eleven Black September agents, some historians have written that those involved in the reprisal missions may have killed as many as eighteen Palestinians who played a role in the massacre.

Did the Assassins Feel Remorse and Guilt?

Lastly, unlike the one in the film, the actual hit team most likely did not experience doubts and regrets about their mission. Indeed, Aaron Klein, who interviewed fifty current and ex-Mossad agents for a book about Israel’s response to the Munich massacre, said that none expressed reservations about any work they had ever done on behalf of the agency. A former Israeli special forces officer who took part in assassination missions during the 1980s agreed, calling the notion that any members of the hit team would question the morality of their mission “fanciful,” and saying, “we all accepted the necessity of hitting at our enemies.” Shimron also told Reuters that Mossad offers psychological help for any operatives who have doubts about their work. It is for these reasons, then, that we can conclude that the hit teams which undertook reprisal missions against the members of Black September involved in the Munich massacre most likely did not experience the kinds of doubt those in the film did.

Accuracies of Munich

Despite these probable errors, Munich does have some factual basis. As noted earlier, Golda Meir did order the Mossad to track down and kill those responsible for the massacre. Furthermore, according to Klein, the actual Israeli hit team, like the one in Munich, took great lengths to prevent killing those not responsible for the massacre. Moreover, as in the film, in 1973 the Mossad launched a joint operation with the Israeli Defense Forces against Black September operatives located in Beirut, Lebanon. Still, overall, Munich is most likely a factually inaccurate film. It is little wonder, then, that Shimron called it “an absurd version of the modus operandi."

Related Links

  • Yossi Melman and Steven Hartov: Munich: fact and fantasy

  • Mossad veterans and experts question the authenticity of Munich

  • Ron Briley: Munich: A Descent into Moral Ambiguity