Dachau, 1972: An Odd Thing Happened on Our Way to Broadcasting the Munich Summer Olympics

The prisoners' barracks at Dachau concentration camp.
The prisoners' barracks at Dachau concentration camp soon after the camp's liberation. (Image credit: T/4 Sidney Blau, 163rd Signal Photo Company, Army Signal Corps - U.S. Holocaust Museum photograph #37255 via Wikipedia)

Fifty years ago this month, mostly on September 5 and 6, 1972, the remarkable people I worked with at ABC Sports in Munich, West Germany, tried their best to tell a horrible, and indeed horribly difficult, story (See, Jim McKay’s Sixth Olympics: Munich 1972).

What made it so tough to tell was that it was actually a millennial-long, multi-part story. Its challenging seeds germinated in the earliest centuries of recorded human history. And its chapters are still being developed today by the disreputable likes of a worldwide cast of today’s racists, bigots, dictators, autocrats, and too many greedy, closed-minded, actors.

For near the capital of the southern German state of Bavaria, each approximately 12-20 miles in a western and northwestern arch from Munich’s town center – and the iconic Marienplatz, home of the cherished Schafflertanz (See, Marienplatz) -- lie two sites synonymous today with man’s truest inhumanity toward fellow man. One became famous during the timeframe of 1933-1945 and leading up to today; the other became famous during the long dark hours, late in the night, of September 5-6, 1972.

And for the two weeks of August 26 to September 11, 1972, ABC had the exclusive broadcast TV rights in the United States, to telecast the XX Summer Olympics in Munich.

First Dachau Visit

A few months before being hired that late summer by ABC, when I was 20 years old, living in Germany for a year abroad with my aunt, I felt compelled to visit what is perhaps the world’s most prominent reminder of man’s inhumanity -- indeed, the shamefulness -- of man-to-man, of woman-to-woman, and even of child-to-child.

A small group of friends from the German language school I attended in the spring of that Summer Olympics year urged me to join them in what was a must-attend crusade for them. It was a site of humankind’s utmost folly and fear. That was the semi-bucolic town along the banks of the Amper River, named Dachau (See, Dachau Concentration Camp).

My takeaways from that late spring afternoon?

Shock and disbelief that it ever happened. Gloom. Depression. Confusion. Grief. All to a degree I had never felt before. The wheels just would not stop turning in my head, and they continue to spin today.

And yet I was so glad that I went there and witnessed it.

That Late Summer Day

Some of what got me to thinking 50 years later about the first of the main Nazi Concentration Camps was my former ABC Sports colleague, a supervising film editor at the time, Kemper Peacock. Kemper had been hired by ABC to work with on-air ABC News Middle East correspondent, Peter Jennings, producing daily Summer Olympics “Up Close and Personal” film vignettes, focused on local Bavaria’s people, places, and culture (See, Peter Jennings' First Olympics). Including having one of the all-time great birth names, K. Peacock was a true talent, when it came to what a skilled craftsman like him and an old Steenbeck film editing machine could do for storytelling -- even for an Olympics broadcast, when the edited segment had nothing to do with sports (See, Steenbeck).

Out of the blue, recently, Kemper magically reached out to reconnect, reminding me of that first day our film unit visited Dachau, to film a piece about that tragic piece of humankind’s recent history. I also remember being joined by our Jewish film photographer for that segment, Don Shapiro, and his assistant cameraman and soundman that day.

We arrived late morning, Germany had brought us a warm late summer day, and driving the eleven or so miles to Dachau from Munich’s Olympic Center was like most drives through the low hills that march up to the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, 60 or so miles to the south. Lots of green, lots of farms, cows, cobblestones, and a patch work of towns and larger towns along the way.

The Dachau Camp itself is rather bleak (See, Dachau, the “Model” Concentration Camp, 1933-39). Of what I remember, there were three basic building units, inside a gate and surrounding tall, wired fences held up by concrete stone posts. One was the barracks, where the concentration prisoners were stored at night; another was the administration buildings, where the memorial museum today stands; and the third was the paradigm of the horror there, the gas chambers.

In some of my research for Peter Jennings' voiceover, I ran across a German saying that told so much of what the German people allowed during those dozen years from 1933-1945. In German that was, “Lieber Gott, mach mich stumm/Das ich nich nach Dachau komm.” The English translation was “Dear God, make me dumb [or silent]/That I may not to Dachau come.”

The other haunting sentence framed high on a wall in the museum seemed to capture it all, and seemed to identify the true importance of that painful reminder along that complicated Bavarian river. It was the famed Spanish author and philosopher George Santayana’s globally known and oft-repeated lesson, “Those that cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” I will never forget that line and what it says about learning from history. And telling the truth.

As we finished our filming and several of Peter’s usual camera takes, a noticeable silence fell over the last we saw of the place. We somberly and silently drove back to the village, our real home for most of each of our days spent at those Summer Olympic Games.

I clearly recall Kemper saying this past summer, “It’s so very telling, fifty years later, that a man just a teenager in 1972, is now inflicting the exact same inhumanity on another people, not hundreds of miles from that concentration camp.” Of course, he meant Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine, and the lessons Putin never learned from the Nazis and Dachau and Furstenfeldbruck.

The “Up Close and Personal Segment” Kemper and Peter and the crew created the next day, which aired two days before the events of September 5-6, was one of the most memorable and rock solid poignant segments I can ever remember being involved in, during hundreds of “Up Close & Personals,” and my more than 15 years with ABC Sports. The irony, too, was that it took a veto by ABC Sport’s president, of a lower-level production executive’s decision not to air it, which got it on the telecast, at all, that week. Like he often did, Roone Arledge was able to see the far greater and more important angle. Indeed, another lesson for us all.

That Late Summer Night in Furstenfeldbruck

Further down the Amper River from Dachau is a similarly ancient and rural town, named Furstenfeldbruck (See, Furstenfeldbruck).

Indeed, on top of their proximity along the same river, the two medieval towns are remarkably similar. Through the years leading up to the Munich Games, the German and American militaries had selected the Furstenfeldbruck site for one of their smaller local air bases. Because it was remote, could accommodate larger jet aircraft, had a tall control tower looking directly down on the helicopter landing pad, and was completely fenced in from the outside world, it was chosen by the Munich, Bavarian, German and Israeli decisionmakers during the 16 hours 11 Israeli athletes and their coaches sat kidnapped in their Olympic dormitory at 31 Connally Strasse in the Olympiagelande. 

When the two German helicopters departed the east side of the athletes’ Olympic Village in the early dark that evening, they rose and turned first south and then west, over the ABC HQ, “dubbed “Barnathan’s Bungalow,” headed for Furstenfeldbruck. Twenty miles and 10 to 15 minutes later, those two aircraft, their pilots, the nine surviving Israelis, and the eight terrorists landed. Two or three of the terrorists walked over to inspect the waiting jet that they expected to carry them away from Europe, and a few minutes later the tower sharpshooters were ordered to snipe the killers, which they should not have done, in some large part because the sharpshooters could not see clearly to shoot accurately enough. Then, in part because the snipers missed, one or more of the terrorists made it back to the two awaiting helicopters, pulled a pin on a hand grenade and pulled the triggers on their guns, and seconds later all eleven of the kidnapped sportsmen were dead. Five of the terrorists and a Munich policeman were also killed.  

Thus, less than 20 years following the end of the terror in nearby Dachau to the northeast, yet another version of that terror had invaded the small river town to the south. People with power were still using other innocents to exact their evil goals.

After Furstenfeldbruck

Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán, recently made comments strangely -- and bewilderingly, roughly 90 years later this year -- akin to the same kind of subtle antisemitism that drove the implementation of Dachau, Auschwitz, and scores of similar WWII German Death Camps. Orbán has been accused of elevating the concept of a superior white Christian race, to the exclusion of almost all others (See, Orbán Urges Christian Nationalists in Europe and U.S. to 'Unite Forces' at CPAC).

That kind of thing is why reminding people about Dachau is so important today.

All too often in life, we do things that the good side of our souls regret. And often regret forever. If I may presume, quite humbly, on behalf of a Collective Mankind (if there were such a thing), I’d say Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau are examples today of that very same regret. And a lesson.

I recall while in Germany a distant relative, call him Albert, introduced himself, which has led to some really joyous and rewarding exchanges over the decades. When I spoke of Dachau long ago, he reminded me of him growing up in yet another nearby medieval town. For school children there, learning about first, and then visiting in-person the Dachau Memorial, is a standard requirement of every student’s curriculum.

I could not help but think that such a requirement should be a part of the basic education for every student in the world. Literally. Maybe not to have to visit such a place in person, but to have that student permanently and forever taught this lesson, lest our offspring be condemned to repeat either event at any place – including Dachau or Furstenfeldbruck -- ever again. Or to never repeat anything even similar, anywhere in between, or afield. And to keep telling the story of the world’s Dachaus, even during a sports television show, telecast from a foreign land.

Like the men and women of ABC Sports often taught us, an unusual story (like Dachau and Furstenfeldbruck during the 1972 Olympics), when given context, makes more sense, is a better educator, and has greater impact than even the most obvious stories (such as the scores of sports events aired by ABC, late that summer). 

That was 1972’s best TV.

That is today’s best TV. ■

Jimmy Schaeffler (AKA “Shamus Schaeffler”) is chairman and CSO of The Carmel Group, a west coast-based consultancy founded in 1995. He can be reached at jimmy@carmelgroup.com.