Palme, Olof (1927–1986)

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PALME, OLOF (1927–1986)


prime minister of Sweden.

Sven Olof Joachim Palme, born to a well-established middle-class family, belonged to a postwar generation characterized by the polarized worldview of the Cold War. As a young student he was active in the splitting of the communist-dominated international student movement and participated in the creation of an alternative, pro-West organization. At the same time, international student activities gave him an early opportunity to travel in the Third World, and Palme's experiences there would have great significance for his future engagement with geopolitical issues.

A year at a university in the United States gave Palme insights into American society and its intellectual traditions. He maintained contacts with radical and liberal U.S. circles until the end of his life.

In 1953, at the age of twenty-six, Palme became political secretary to Tage Erlander, Sweden's Social Democratic prime minister (1946–1969). Palme quickly gained great importance for Erlander as a source of inspiration and as a partner in intellectual dialogue. During these years Palme had reason to occupy himself with a broad spectrum of issues and thus acquired a general education in politics that would stand him in good stead during his future political career.

Palme quickly acquired the image of a young man of the future. He was appointed minister (without a portfolio) in 1963. He was minister of communications from 1965 to 1967 and minister of education and culture in 1967. In 1969 he was elected chairman of the Social Democratic Party and simultaneously became prime minister.

During the 1960s Palme's name was increasingly linked to engagement in international affairs, above all because of his critical attitude toward the U.S. war in Vietnam. He delivered his sharpest critique in connection with the Christmas 1972 U.S. bombing of Hanoi, in a speech that compared the bombing with atrocities such as Guernica in Spain in 1937, Babi Yar and Treblinka during World War II, and Sharpeville in South Africa in 1960.

The Swedish Vietnam policy caused serious complications in Sweden's diplomatic relations with the United States. At the same time, Palme gained international attention. Palme had contact with many leading cultural figures, journalists, and radical politicians. During the 1970s he became an important partner in dialogue for leaders from the Third World. Through his work in the Socialist International, Palme made important contributions to the development of international social democracy in, among other places, Portugal.

Domestically Palme's first years as prime minister coincided with an era of social radicalization. During the first half of the 1970s Sweden went through its most comprehensive period of social reforms. Especially noted was Palme's engagement in the issue of equality between the sexes, and many of the reforms of the 1970s concerned family policies and women's labor market opportunities. At the same time, Palme showed political and tactical shrewdness. Social Democracy's electoral basis was steadily shrinking throughout the 1970s. Nonetheless, Palme managed to stay in power until 1976, when the Social Democrats were forced into opposition for the first time since the 1930s. The party returned to power in 1982, however, with Palme again as prime minister. By then, the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s had been replaced by the neoliberalism of the 1980s, and Palme did not always feel altogether at home in the new political climate.

Palme continued to dedicate a significant portion of his political energies to international questions. He established the Palme Commission, an independent expert commission on issues of disarmament and security. Some of the commission's policy suggestions became irrelevant when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s. Palme was also appointed United Nations mediator in the conflict between Iran and Iraq, but his work did not lead to the hoped-for results.

On 28 February 1986, Olof Palme was shot dead on a street in Stockholm. The murder awakened strong passions and has, in retrospect, been characterized as a national trauma. Palme's death coincided with great changes in political and ideological values, which has led to its sometimes being seen as a symbol for the end of the Swedish Model. The investigation was badly mishandled and no one could be tied to the murder, which gave rise to extensive speculation and conspiracy theories.

Olof Palme was Sweden's leading postwar political personality. His strong political feelings and engagement were paired with extensive expertise, significant tactical skill, and great rhetorical talent. He also was controversial and provoked strong feelings. The political opposition presented him as a politician of confrontation, and in conservative circles one spoke of the existence of a palpable Palme-hatred, which has since abated. Although critics existed within the Social Democratic Party as well, the dominant tendency was to join together in personal support of Palme.

See alsoSocial Democracy; Sweden.


Åsard, Erik, ed. Politikern Olof Palme. Stockholm, 2002.

Elmbrant, Björn. Palme. Stockholm, 1996.

Fredriksson, Gunnar. Olof Palme. Translated by Roger Tanner. Stockholm, 1996.

Richard, Serge. Le rendez-vouz suédois: Conversations avec Serge Richard. Paris, 1976.

Kjell Östberg