I finally got around to watching Kristina Lindström and Maud Nycander’s documentary about the former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme yesterday. It is a bit embarrassing to admit that I have had both Henrik Berggren’s “Underbara dagar framför oss” and Kjell Östberg’s two-volume biography standing on my shelves for a long time which means that I am not properly updated on the literature on Palme.
Viewed as a documentary, “Palme” follows the typical template for biographies: Contemporary footage with and about Palme is mixed with interviews and testimonials from friends and political colleagues. As such, it is a nice but unsurprising experience to watch.
My feeling after watching the movies was that I was presented with the image of Palme which has been common among the progressive middle-classes: The son of the upper class who gave up his privileges to live among the ordinary people (the house in Vällingby!) and fought for global justice (Vietnam, Chile, South Africa!) – the parallels with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King are almost drawn up too sharply. And obviously the fact that Palme was murdered looms over a good part of the story.
What I missed was an understanding of the fact that Palme was, on the one hand, the culmination of post-war Social Democracy standing as he did on the shoulders of Tage Erlander, while he on the other hand had to deal with the social and economic crises of the 1970s. In electoral terms, the Swedish Social Democracy culminated in 1968 and while the party was still a formidable force in the 1970s and 1980s, Palme faced a much bumpier ride with a resurgent centre-right and a radicalized trade union movement confronting him. This is only covered rather superficially in the documentary.
While the public image of Palme very much focuses on Palme the agitator and Palme the international statesman, we should also remember that most of his work lay in the domestic political and parliamentary arenas. The documentary doesn’t have too much to say about this but other portraits of Palme has pointed out that he did have a strong sense for what was doable and that he could be a shrewd political negotiator. This dimension somehow disappeared in the film which was sad because it would have put the grotesque amount of hatred directed at Palme in an even stronger perspective.
All in all, the film was ok to watch but I still think that Klas Eklund‘s short biography from the collection “Sveriges statsministrar under 100 år” is the best introduction to the complex politician Olof Palme was.1 We then have the heavier works by Berggren and Östberg to go to and both political scientist Olof Ruin and economist Assar Lindbeck has written about their experiences of Palme.
And I still think that somebody should have a go at an updated academic biography of Palme’s predecessor Tage Erlander.
- Eklund’s biography and the entire collection should be available as a e-book at a much reduced price, also outside of Sweden [↩]