© 1998, Maria K. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved.

Winner 1998 Texas Swedish Cultural Foundation Essay Contest


Olof Palme: Worldly Premier of Sweden


By Mia McKeehan
Bellaire H. S., Grade 11, Teacher C. Quaite

If one thinks of Sweden in the last 30 years, the name Olof Palme will probably come to mind. An energetic and imaginative politician in his day, Premier Olof Palme introduced Sweden to the modern international arena and dedicated himself to themes of "Socialism, Peace, and Solidarity." He refused to be bound by the narrow-minded cold war mentality, taking a strong stand against the Vietnam War and fighting for liberation of oppressed people in third world countries. Yet Olof Palme’s controversial character eventually led to his demise. On a seemingly calm evening in 1986 his brutal murder shocked Sweden and the rest of the world.

Olof Palme was born to an upper-class family in Sweden in 1927. His childhood and early life play a large role in the formation of his passion for social justice. He traveled as a child to visit his grandfather in Latvia, where the poverty scenes became engrained in his mind. When he was six years old his father died and his mother was left to raise her children alone. He graduated from high school at 17, did military service, then began to travel. His travels brought him to Ohio, where he attended Kenyon College for two terms and received his B.A. degree for politics and economics.

His experiences after graduating had a large influence on his political views for the rest of his life. In 1948 he hitch-hiked across the United States to Mexico with nearly no money in his pocket. Like many of the period, he saw the current realities associated with the long-term American dream. He became convinced that a Swedish welfare state might be the better path to the dream compared to American capitalism and Soviet-style communism.

Upon returning to Sweden, Palme joined the Social Democratic party and became active in student politics at Stockholm University. In 1951, after receiving his law degree, he became president of the National Swedish Union of Students. Premier Tage Erlander took a liking to Palme and hired him as secretary and speech writer in 1953. From then to 1963 he came to be known as a young leader and speaker with a flair for oratory and debate. His affiliation with the prime minister helped him become an active political figure in the years to come.

In 1963 he joined the Cabinet of Premier Erlander. In this post, he supervised the switching of traffic from left to right, took a strong stance against violence in motion pictures, and supervised education reform. He began to make the more conservative members of political parties uneasy. In 1968 he appeared in the highly controversial Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow), and personally demonstrated in Stockholm against American intervention in Vietnam. His radical reputation made him quite popular among the young leftist voters and proved advantageous to his political aspirations. "The key to political power in Sweden lies in the radical young voters, who must be wooed from the Liberals on the right and Communists on the left," as Roland Huntford observed in a Washington Post article.1

Premier Erlander announced his retirement in September of 1969. Palme was unanimously elected to succeed him. As prime minister, Palme immediately saw the political dangers of his radical reputation and attempted to tone down his image by dressing more conservatively and "curbing what one critic called his ‘mocking smile.’"1 As he took office, Palme said, "The soup will not be eaten as hot as it’s cooked," as a metaphor to suggest that his policies may not be as radical as his first impression. As such, he began to address the problems facing Sweden as the country approached the 1970s.

In office Palme continued to tone down his radical reputation as he brought Sweden into the international arena from her historic isolationism and unprincipled, self-serving neutrality (some believe Sweden may have sold weapons to Nazi Germany and allowed her railroads to be used to transport Nazi supplies to Norway.) He was certainly an interesting character, if not charismatic and contradictory. He was outspoken on American involvement in Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and African liberation movements. He dedicated himself to causes of principle such as peace, freedom, and humanity. E.S. Reddy in his website describes Olof Palme’s unrelenting dedication to the African liberation movements: "In 1969 the Swedish government decided to give direct assistance to the movements, and was the only Western country to do so for several years."4 In this way Sweden became involved in these movements and sparked other smaller Western countries to follow the example.

The Palme government gave asylum to many refugees from political oppression in many countries, including refugees from the Vietnam draft in the United States. Palme also took a courageous stance on U.S. war actions, comparing the U.S. bombing of Hanoi to the Nazi bombing of Guernica. In 1970 young Swedish members of left-wing political groups threw eggs at the American ambassador, Jerome H. Holland. All of these factors angered the United States, and soon President Richard Nixon told the Swedes that their Ambassador was no longer welcome in Washington. However, relations improved after the American withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.

In 1976 the Social Democrats lost their position in the Swedish government and were replaced by a center-right party under Thorbjörn Fälldin. However, it was during these years that Olof Palme personally became very active in the international arena. He joined the Brandt international commission on North-South problems, chaired his own commission on Common Security, and became the United Nations mediator in the Iran-Iraq War. In 1977 he made several important addresses on African liberation, as well as leading the Socialist International mission to southern Africa. In 1978 he was awarded a gold medal from the United Nations in recognition of his great contribution to the international campaign against apartheid.

One of the major themes in Olof Palme’s political career was solidarity, or unity. He made several speeches on the importance of freedom and democracy. "In order to live and survive a society must have a comprehensive solidarity, the ability to recognize the conditions of other people, a feeling of joint responsibility and participation. Otherwise, sooner or later, society will fall apart into petty, egotistical interests."6 Palme’s imagination and energy brought Sweden to an internationally respected status.

In 1982 the Social Democrats returned to power. "We’ve won the victory for the welfare state," Palme triumphed. He continued to lead Sweden with a fervor and even started some controversial economic reforms. Yet on a cold February evening promenade in 1986 with his wife, a dark-haired man wearing a blue ski jacket quickly fired two shots at close range. Olof Palme had been enjoying the freedom of being able to walk around freely in the capital, unlike most other leaders who were constantly accompanied by bodyguards. The murder came as a brutal shock to Swedish society. "As numb and disbelieving Swedes gathered last week to stare at the small pool of blood in the snow where their leader had been gunned down, they wept not just in grief at the death of a shrewd and compassionate man, but at their unwelcome entry into the era of political terrorism."8

The murder of their prime minister sent Swedes into uncharted territory. It was a terrible blow because the society had long boasted of being a model--lacking the political violence and terrorism of other societies. Swedes placed red roses and candles on the murder site, and even a large banner reading: Why murder a true democrat? Condolences came to Sweden from all over the world. People realized how great a man they had lost. "From Vietnam to Nicaragua, from El Salvador to Palestine, from Sahara to South Africa, across the face of the globe, the flags hang limp and half mast in loving memory of this giant of justice who had become a citizen of the world, a brother and a comrade to all who are downtrodden."7

To this day the Palme murder has not been solved, although there has been much speculation and investigation for over ten years. A man named Christer Pettersson was arrested for the murder in 1988, but was later acquitted. Suspects range from Swedish right-wing party members to Kurds to a mass operation of over 80 South African secret police agents. It is obvious that there has been a lack of organization on the Swedish investigation’s part, and some believe a cover-up.

Sven Anèr, a freelance investigator and author in Sweden, speculates that Swedish political officers were involved. He points out that Hans Holmèr, originally the lead of murder investigations, pretended that blame lay with the Kurds while he knew that the murder was from the inside. Anèr says, "The fact that Holmèr lies about his whereabouts during the night of the murder (a faked alibi in the town of Borlänge, upheld by the state police!) should have toppled Holmèr long ago."2 He raises the question of whether the Swedish Government was directly involved in the murder.

Another speculation on the Palme murder was its association with the secret police of South Africa. An editorial in the Workers World News Service observes: "Eugene de Kock, head of a police hit squad, provided grisly details about how his agents deliberately massacred whole families of those opposing the apartheid system…they say that the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was part of an operation called ‘Long Reach,’ carried out by a unit of the South African secret police."9 This consideration is indeed probable, as Palme was murdered one week after he spoke at an anti-apartheid rally.

Investigators have also looked into Croatian nationalists, West German terrorists factions, Kurds, and other groups. Indeed there are many possible suspects in the Olof Palme murder. Olof Palme’s diverse associations in the international arena complicates the murder investigation. It also may have made him more susceptible to an assassination, especially with the outspoken and brave stance he took on many controversial world issues.

Sven Olof Joachim Palme was the foremost and most internationally renowned leader of Sweden in modern times. He was a controversial figure throughout his life, and remains so even after his death. His contribution to international peace will be a lasting gift to the world. February 28, 1986, the date of his murder, turned the tables for Sweden’s open society. The murder case may never be solved. Like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Olof Palme’s legacy as a gifted leader, speaker, and freedom-fighter will linger long after his unfortunate demise and likely be even larger in death than it was in life.

Works Cited

  1. "Palme, (Sven) Olof (Joachim)." Current Biography. 1970. 336-338.
  2. Anèr, Sven. The Palme murder a Swedish trauma. [Online] Available http://www.lls.se/aner, March 7, 1998.
  3. Archer, Clive. "Olaf Palme 1927-1986." Contemporary Review 22 Mar 1986: 205.
  4. Ed. Reddy E. S. Selected Speeches of Olof Palme. [Online] Available http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/solidarity/palme-a.html, 1989.
  5. Hadenius, Stig. Swedish Politics During the 20th Century. Sweden: The Swedish Institute, 1985.
  6. Olof Palme. [Online] Available http://topaz.kenyon.edu/depts/anth-soc/palme.htm, February 27, 1998.
  7. Reddy, E. S. Olof Palme – Introduction. [Online] Available http://www.anc.org. za/ancdocs/history/solidarity/palme-b.html, 1989.
  8. Serrill, Michael S. "Bloody Blow to an Open Society." Time 10 Mar. 1986: 53.
  9. Workers World News Service. Editorial--The Olof Palme murder: Who covered it up? [Online] Available http://www.workers.org/ww/palme.html, Oct. 10, 1996.

© 1998, Maria K. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved.