Tuesday and Wednesday will probably see a lot of Swedish blog posts about Olof Palme who was murdered on a street in central Stockholm 20 years ago. Newspapers already started bringing articles about Palme’s career in politics, the murder and Palme’s legacy in Swedish politics during the week-end.
To this day, we only know three things for certain about Palme’s death:
- He was shot by someone.
- He died almost immediately because of his wounds.
- Swedish police messed up the investigation. Completely.
On Sunday, Swedish television screened the latest in a line of books and documentaries speculating in the causes behind Palme’s murder.
This time the hypothesis was that Christer Pettersson – a petty criminal with a history of violence who was charged with but eventually freed from the murder – was indeed the assassin, but that the murder had been accidental as Pettersson was hired to kill a drug dealer named Sigge Cedergren and mistook Palme for Cedergren.
The sources were a number of shady persons from the Stockholm underworld.
Previous suspects include the PKK, the South African secret service, shady international arms dealers as well as right wing extremists within the Swedish police and secret service.
Mickey Mouse hasn’t (yet) been linked with the crime.
I can only say that your guesses are as good as mine, that they are likely to be as good as those made by the Stockholm police and that the murder is likely to remain unsolved in judicial terms.
Where Were You When…?
This question is easier to answer: Yes, I do remember where I was when I heard that Palme had been murdered.
I had gone to bed early on Friday because of an upset stomach, woke up a little before 9 AM Saturday morning and turned on the radio, I had standing by the bedside, to listen to the 9 o’clock news.
I spent most of Saturday following news broadcasts – it was a little easier back in 1986 as I only had access to one Danish and two Swedish TV channels. I don’t recall if Danish television cancelled entertainment programmes for the evening but I doubt it.
One thing which I (and a lot of Danes) noted was that Swedish TV had never made a proper portrait of Olof Palme and had to use a programme made by Danish TV a few years earlier.
Swedish Television has a site where some of the news reports from 1986 and 1987 about the murder can be watched. Swedish Radio also has an archive with interviews, news reports and documentaries.
A Political Science Perspective
Trying to give a short review of Olof Palme’s political role and legacy is not easy.
He was a controversial person in Sweden, often vilefied in media, partly because of his left-wing rhetoric, partly because of the nature of Swedish society.
Left wing crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö actually published a novel in 1975 where “the PM” – who was obviously modelled on Palme and described in very negative terms – was shot and killed in a public setting.
Palme’s role as prime minister during the “lottery” parliament from 1973 to 1976 and leader of the opposition under the centrist minority governments between 1978 and 1979 and again between 1981 and 1982 suggests that he was more flexible politically and a better negotiator than he was usually given credit for – especially by Swedish newspapers.
Nationally, Palme’s political career was linked to the culmination of the development of the welfare state during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Swedish economy still allowed for the introduction of expansive transfer and service schemes while the challenge from the “new left” movement of the late 1960s as well as pressure from the trade unions also forced the Social Democratic party to introduce for radical economic policies.
According to some Social Democratic politicians, Palme wasn’t happy with the way trade unions pressured the party for the introduction of wage earner funds that would crowd out private ownership in large companies. For obvious reasons, Palme has never given his side of this tale.
Political conflicts on the national level and the near break-down of the Swedish economy starting in the late 1980’s and culminating in the mid-1990s mean that today’s welfare state is much less ambitious than that of the 1960s.
Internationally, Palme was linked with the “thiers mondisme” and anti-colonial movements of the 1960s.
During his first term in office, Swedish foreign policy became synonymous with anti-US policies in the Far East and Latin America.
The eventual defeat of the US in Vietnam in 1975, the collapse of Socialist and Populist governments in Latin American during the 1970s and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s meant that the “thiers mondisme” and neutrality became less of an asset in international politics.
Today, Sweden is just another small European state in the international system.
Palme’s successors Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson come across as radically different from the rhetorically gifted and charismatic Palme.
Carlsson was more of a party technocrat with little time for rhetoric and charisma and had to spend most of his time in office battling the trade unions and fighting the looming crisis in Swedish economy. Persson seems to be more of a centrist with a touch of traditionalism politically than either Palme or Carlsson.
Palme’s legacy in today’s Swedish politics may be limited but this on the other hand goes for most politicians after 20 years.