Palme, Olof

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Olof Palme

Swedish political leader Olof Palme (1927-1986), in the words of the International Herald Tribune, “is often cited as the greatest Swedish statesman of the 20th century.” Over his two stretches as Sweden's prime minister, he was a consistent voice in favor of peace, democracy, and economic equality, and he led Sweden to a place on the world stage that was notable in view of the country's small size.

On the night of February 28, 1986, Palme was gunned down as he walked along a Stockholm street with his wife, Lisbeth. His killing, the first to befall a Swedish leader since King Gustav III was assassinated in 1792, remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century; a small-time criminal named Christer Pettersson was convicted of the crime but later released on appeal. Despite, or perhaps because of, his international reputation, Palme was a controversial figure, and over the years since his death Palme's murder has been ascribed, with plausible supporting evidence, to a remarkable variety of international evildoers.

Raised in Comfort

During his time as prime minister, Palme was one of the politicians who led Sweden perhaps closer than any other Western democracy to a socialist political system, financed by a large tax bureaucracy. It was thus sometimes seen as ironic that he personally emerged from the businessoriented class that would later resist his policies. Born on January 30, 1927, in Stockholm, Sweden, he was the son of businessman Gunnar Palme, who died when Olof was seven. Lawyers, bankers, and top government officials were common in his aristocratic family, and his second wife, Lisbeth Beck-Friis, was a baroness. Palme was sent to a top boarding school in Sigtuna, Sweden, where he was groomed as a lawyer and expected to follow one of the family's established patterns. He planned to enroll in law school, but before beginning classes he decided to spend a year in the United States.

It was Palme's experiences in America that put him on the path to political radicalization. He spent the 1947-48 academic year at Kenyon College in Ohio. Perhaps because of the superior education he had received up to that point, he finished all the requirements for a bachelor's degree in just one year of coursework, and was granted that degree in 1948. To celebrate, Palme embarked on a four-month hitchhiking trip around the United States, visiting 34 states and seeing for himself the racial segregation and the vast income disparities that left millions of people mired in poverty in the country that to the rest of the world had seemed a beacon of democracy. Those experiences instilled in Palme the desire to use government as a tool for the elimination of inequality.

Palme returned to Sweden and took personal action in opposition to the Communist Party takeover of the government in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1948: meeting a Czech girl whose position in her homeland was precarious, he married her so that she could join him in Sweden, whereupon the two divorced. Palme returned to Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1950, for an International Union of Students conference where he, along with other students from Western countries, received a chilly reception. With the world hardening into political spheres of influence dominated by American capitalism and the Communism of the Soviet Union, the ambitious young Swede would come to imagine a national course unaffiliated with either of those models.

Receiving his law degree from the University of Stockholm in 1951 after joining the government-sponsored Swedish Union of Students, Palme immediately set about climbing the Swedish political ladder. He joined the dominant Social Democratic Party (officially the Social Democratic Labor Party) and landed a job at Sweden's defense ministry, where his talents were spotted by the politician who became his mentor, prime minister Tage Erlander. Erlander, the architect of much of contemporary Sweden's cradle-to-grave system of social services, hired Palme as his speechwriter and private secretary in 1953. Holding that position for nine years, Palme learned the workings of the top levels of Swedish government from the inside. He was elected as a member of Sweden's parliament in 1957. He and his second wife, Lisbeth, had married in 1956, and the couple would raise three sons.

Joined Swedish Cabinet

In 1963 Palme was elevated by Erlander to the rank of cabinet minister without portfolio, and from 1965-67 he served as communications minister. Moving to the position of minister of education, he promoted the inclusion of Marxist thought in school curricula and stirred international controversy for the first time when, in 1968 (a year in which he also appeared in the X-rated Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow)), he marched along with North Vietnam's ambassador to Sweden in a demonstration against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He evolved into an outspoken opponent of U.S. foreign policy, later comparing that country's bombing of Hanoi, Vietnam, to the Nazi German bombing of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. Relations between the United States and Sweden deteriorated as a result, and for a time the two countries came close to a diplomatic rupture as the government of U.S. president Richard Nixon refused to legitimize Sweden's ambassador and recalled its own ambassador to Stockholm.

Yet Palme was hardly a creature of the international left. He criticized the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as vociferously as he had opposed American involvement in Vietnam, and to the student protest movement that rolled across Stockholm as well as other Western European cities that year his name was anathema. In 1969 Palme became the leader of the Social Democrats and succeeded the retiring Erlander as prime minister. He was Europe's youngest head of state at the time. Continuing to antagonize the United States, Palme forged an alliance with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He also emerged as an early leader of the effort to topple South Africa's apartheid regime. He often spoke of the need to find a “third way” between the American and Soviet economic models.

At home, noted Geoffrey Smith of the London Times, Palme “was eager for Sweden to move on from a society where there was equality of opportunity to one where there was equality of results as well.” His Social Democratic government, undergirded by Swedish prosperity that had resulted in an unemployment rate close to zero, spearheaded an expansion of Sweden's welfare state that included large-scale construction of subsidized housing, social security reform, and generous maternity leave policies, among other benefits. These measures were financed by taxes that were among the world's highest. Sweden's tax bureaucracy became legendary for its heavy-handed ways, and Swedes were troubled when one of their national icons, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, fled to Germany after complaining of unfair treatment in a tax evasion case.

Combined with a financial crunch in the years following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, that sense of public dissatisfaction was enough to drive Palme from power in 1976; the defeat marked the first time in 44 years that the Social Democrats had been out of power in Sweden. While in opposition, Palme stayed busy as a mediator in both the U.S.-Iran hostage crisis of 1980 and the Iran-Iraq war of the early 1980s. He was returned to power in the Social Democratic victory of 1982, and while his naturally combative personality was undimmed—Palme was described by friends as a man who enjoyed debate for its own sake, regardless of the position or social station of his opponent— he seemed to have mellowed politically. He did stir protests with a controversial plan to turn government-funded investment funds over to the leadership of labor unions.

Gunned Down on Late-Night Walk

On February 28, 1986, Olof and Lisbeth Palme were returning home on foot from an evening at the movies, walking along a well-traveled Stockholm street. As he often did when on a personal outing, he had given his guards the rest of the evening off, considering Stockholm, as most Swedes did, one of the world's safest cities. Just before midnight, someone fired two shots at Palme from behind; one bullet hit him in the back, and a pool of blood, often visited by Swedes over the next days, grew in the snow. He was rushed to Stockholm's Sabbatsberg Hospital but was declared dead shortly after midnight on March 1. No other European head of state had been killed since before World War II.

A taxi driver had immediately called for help after witnessing the shooting, but accusations later flared that police had bungled the initial investigation. According to Michael S. Serrill of Time, “Swedish newspapers charged that police were slow in cordoning off the scene of the crime and did not set up roadblocks out of the city until 90 minutes after the murder. Investigators were reportedly so sloppy in examining the scene that the only physical evidence of the shooting, two bullets, was actually found by passersby.” Police admitted that they were puzzled by those .357 Magnum cartridges, but observers pointed out that similar ones were being offered for sale at a nearby sporting goods store. As the investigation developed, two cabinet ministers, the chief of Sweden's national police force, and the head of the national police intelligence agency were all forced to resign.

A 43-year-old alcoholic named Christer Pettersson was arrested after witnesses reported seeing him running away from the crime scene, although other witnesses placed him miles away at the time. He was convicted of Palme's murder in 1988, largely on the strength of testimony by Lisbeth Palme, who was herself grazed by a bullet during the shooting. According to the Economist, she picked him out of a police lineup, stating, “You can see who's the alcoholic; number 8.” The evidence against Pettersson was completely circumstantial, however, with no murder weapon ever recovered and no motive offered, and the conviction was overturned on appeal in 1989. Pettersson, according to the London Times, once bragged that “sure as hell it was me who shot him. But they'll never nail me for it. The weapon is gone.” During television appearances he made contradictory statements, seeming to admit to the murder but then withdrawing his remarks. Pettersson died in 2004.

By that time, a bewildering variety of theories had been advanced concerning who had actually killed Palme, although his family and top police officials continued to believe that Pettersson was the culprit. The number of conspiracy theories rivaled those attached to the 1963 assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, to which the Palme murder was sometimes compared in terms of its significance for Sweden's national psyche. Candidates for the murder included German left-wing terrorists (who had claimed credit for the shooting shortly after the event), rightwing factions within the ranks of Swedish police, agents of South Africa's apartheid regime, the PKK guerrilla movement associated with the Kurdish ethnic group in Iraq and Turkey, members of the Kurdish Workers' Party in Turkey, and groups in India or Iraq involved in arms dealings with Swedish munitions manufacturer Bofors that Palme had either fostered or tried to stop. Although the twentieth anniversary of Palme's killing in 2006 brought a lower level of public mourning that had been seen ten years earlier, several Swedish investigators were still assigned to the case, and the discovery of a gun in a lake in central Sweden at the end of that year brought fresh hopes of new developments. His family established the Olof Palme Memorial Fund for International Understanding and Common Security, which awarded $50,000 annually to a figure active in the pursuit of democracy and human rights. Around the globe, streets and parks had been renamed for Palme.


Bondeson, Jan, Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme, Cornell University Press, 2005.

Contemporary Newsmakers 1986, Issue Cumulation, Gale Research, 1987.


Daily Mail (London, England), November 22, 2006.

Economist, July 29, 1989.

Europe, November 1996.

Forbes, July 7, 1997.

Houston Chronicle, March 1, 2006.

International Herald Tribune, February 28, 2006.

National Review, March 28, 1986; June 6, 1986.

Nordic Business Report, April 5, 2001; January 21, 2003.

Time, March 10, 1986; March 17, 1986.

Times (London, England), March 3, 1986; October 27, 2004.