Olof Palme

Olof Palme
Olof Palme
Palme, early 1970s
Prime Minister of Sweden
In office
14 October 1969 – 8 October 1976
Monarch Gustaf VI Adolf,
Carl XVI Gustaf
Preceded by Tage Erlander
Succeeded by Thorbjörn Fälldin
In office
8 October 1982 – 28 February 1986
Monarch Carl XVI Gustaf
Deputy Ingvar Carlsson
Preceded by Thorbjörn Fälldin
Succeeded by Ingvar Carlsson
Personal details
Born 30 January 1927(1927-01-30)
Stockholm, Sweden
Died 28 February 1986(1986-02-28) (aged 59)
Stockholm, Sweden
Political party Swedish Social Democratic Party
Spouse(s) Lisbet Palme
Alma mater Stockholm University College,
Kenyon College

Sven Olof Joachim Palme (About this sound Olof Palme ) (30 January 1927 – 28 February 1986) was a Swedish politician. A long-time protegé of Prime Minister Tage Erlander, Palme led the Swedish Social Democratic Party from 1969 to his assassination, and was a two-term Prime Minister of Sweden, heading a Privy Council Government from 1969 to 1976 and a cabinet government from 1982 until his death. His electoral defeat in 1976 marked the end of 40 unbroken years of Social Democratic government, and he was forced into opposition. Serving as special mediator of the United Nations in the Iran-Iraq war, he returned to power in the 1982 election.

A pivotal, renowned, and polarizing figure domestically as well as in international politics since the 1960s until his death, Palme held steadfast to traditional Swedish non-alignment juxtaposed to vocal, political, and financial support of third world liberation movements following the process of decolonization, including, most controversially, several Marxist and totalitarian regimes. In 1975, he was the first head of a Western democratic government to visit Cuba after its revolution, holding a speech on Plaza de la Revolución praising Fidel Castro's government.

Frequently a critic of US and Soviet foreign policy, he resorted to vocal and often harsh criticism to pinpoint resistance towards imperialist ambitions and authoritarian regimes, including those of Francisco Franco of Spain, Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia, and B J Vorster and P W Botha of South Africa. Palme's steadfast opposition to apartheid has made theories of South African involvement in his death some of the most prolific, even a quarter of a century after his assassination. His murder on a street in Stockholm on February 28, 1986 was the first of its kind in modern Swedish history and had a great impact across Scandinavia.[1]


Early life

Palme was born into an upper-class, conservative family in Östermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. His father, a businessman, was of Dutch ancestry and his mother, Freiin von Knieriem, was of Baltic German origin. Palme's father died when he was six years old. Despite his upper class background, his political orientation came to be influenced by Social Democratic attitudes. His travels in the Third World, as well as the United States – where he saw deep economic inequality and racial segregation – helped to develop these views.

A sickly child, Olof Palme received his education from private tutors. Even as a child he gained knowledge of two foreign languages. He studied at the Sigtuna School of Liberal Arts, one of Sweden's few residential high schools, and passed the university entrance examination with high marks at the early age of 17. He did brief military service and enrolled at the University of Stockholm.[2]

On a scholarship, he studied at Kenyon College, Ohio 1947–1948, graduating with a B.A. in less than a year.[3] Inspired by radical debate in the student community, he wrote a critical essay on Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Palme wrote his senior honor thesis on the United Auto Workers union, led at the time by Walter Reuther. After graduation he traveled throughout the country and eventually ended up in Detroit, where his hero Reuther agreed to an interview which lasted several hours. In later years, Palme regularly remarked during his many subsequent American visits, that the United States had made him a socialist, a remark that often has caused confusion. Within the context of his American experience, it was not that Palme was repelled by what he found in America, but rather that he was inspired by it.[4]

After hitchhiking through the USA and Mexico, he returned to Sweden to study law at Stockholm University. In 1949 he became a member of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. During his time at university, Palme became involved in student politics, working with the Swedish National Union of Students. In 1951, he became a member of the social democratic student association in Stockholm, although it is asserted he did not attend their political meetings at the time. The following year he was elected President of the Swedish National Union of Students. As a student politician he concentrated on international affairs and traveled across Europe.[2]

Palme attributed his becoming a socialist to three major influences:

Political career

In 1953, Palme was recruited by the social democratic prime minister Tage Erlander to work in his secretariat. From 1955 he was a board member of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League and lectured at the Youth League College Bommersvik. He also was a member of the Worker's Educational Association.

In 1957 he was elected as an Member of Parliament (Swedish: riksdagsledamot)[5] represented Jönköping County in the directly-elected second chamber ("andra kammaren"). In the early 1960s Palme became a member of the Swedish Agency for International Assistance and was in charge of inquiries into assistance to the developing countries and educational aid. In 1963, he became a member of the Cabinet - as Minister without Portfolio in the Cabinet Office, and retained his duties as a close political adviser to Prime Minister Tage Erlander. In 1965, he became Minister of Transport and Communications. One issue of special interest to him was the further development of radio and television, while ensuring their independence from commercial interests.[2] In 1967 he became Minister of Education, and the following year, he was the target of strong criticism from left-wing students protesting against the government's plans for university reform. The protests culminated with the occupation of the Student Union Building in Stockholm; Palme came there and tried to confornt the students, urging them to use democratic methods for the pursuit of their cause.[6] When party leader Tage Erlander stepped down in 1969, Palme was elected as the new leader by the Social Democratic party congress and succeeded Erlander as Prime Minister.

His protégé and political ally, Bernt Carlsson, who was appointed UN Commissioner for Namibia in July 1987, also suffered an untimely death. Carlsson was killed in the Libyan terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988 en route to the UN signing ceremony of the New York Accords the following day.

Palme was said to have had a profound impact on people's emotions; he was very popular among most left-wing sympathizers, although an outspoken anti-communist, but harshly detested by most liberals and conservatives.[7] This was due in part to his international activities, especially those directed against the US foreign policy, and in part to his aggressive and outspoken debating style.[8][9]


Olof Palme in 1968
Olof Palme at Norra Bantorget, May Day 1973

As leader of a new generation of Swedish Social Democrats, Olof Palme was often described as a "revolutionary reformist".[10][11] Domestically, his socialist views—especially the Social Democrat drive to expand Labour Union influence over business—engendered a great deal of hostility from more conservatively inclined Swedes.

Olof Palme carried out major reforms in the Swedish constitution such as orchestrating a switch from bicameralism to unicameralism in 1969 and in 1975 replacing the 166-year-old Instrument of Government (at the time the oldest political constitution in the world after that of the United States) with a new one officially establishing parliamentary democracy rather than de jure monarchic autocracy, abolishing the Privy Council of Sweden and stripping King Carl XVI Gustav of most rights held even by ceremonial monarchs in Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom.

His reforms on labour market included established a law which increased job security. In the Swedish 1973 general election the Socialist-Communist and the Liberal-Conservative blocs got 175 places each in the parliament. The Palme administration continued to govern the country but several times they had to draw lots to decide on some issues, although most important issues were decided through concessional agreement.[12]

Under Olof Palme's government matters concerned with child care centers, social security, protection of the elderly, accident safety, and housing problems received special attention. Under Palme the public health system in Sweden became incredibly efficient, with the infant mortality rate standing at 12 per 1,000 live births.[13] An ambitious redistributive programme was carried out,[14] with the Swedish welfare state significantly expanding from a position already one of the most far-reaching in the world during his time in office,[15] while tax rates rose from being fairly low even by European standards to the highest levels in the free world.[16]

An outspoken supporter of gender equality, Palme sparkled interest for women's' rights issues by attending a World Women's Conference in Mexico. In 1968 Palme was a driving force behind the release of documentary Dom kallar oss mods. The controversial movie, depicting two social outcasts, was scheduled to be released in an edited form but Palme thought the material was too socially important to be cut.[17]

As a forerunner in green politics Olof Palme was a firm believer in nuclear power as a necessary form of energy, at least for a transitional period to curb the influence of fossile fuel.[18] His intervention in Sweden's 1980 referendum on the future of nuclear power is often pinpointed by opponents of nuclear power as saving it. As of 2011, nuclear power remains one of the most important sources of energy in Sweden, much attributed to Palme's actions.

Shortly before his assassination, Palme had been accused of being pro-Soviet and not sufficiently safeguarding Sweden's national interest. Arrangements had therefore been made for him to go to Moscow to discuss a number of contentious bilateral issues, including alleged Soviet submarine incursions into Swedish waters (see U 137).

On the international scene, Palme was a widely recognised political figure because of his:

All of this ensured that Palme had many opponents (as well as many friends) abroad.[19]

On 21 February 1968, Palme (then Minister of Education) participated in a protest in Stockholm against the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam together with the North Vietnamese Ambassador to the Soviet Union Nguyen Tho Chan. The protest was organized by the Swedish Committee for Vietnam and Palme and Nguyen were both invited as speakers. As a result of this, the U.S. recalled its Ambassador from Sweden and Palme was fiercely criticised by the opposition for his participation in the protest.[20]

On 23 December 1972, Palme (then Prime Minister) made a speech in Swedish national radio where he compared the ongoing U.S. bombings of Hanoi to a number of historical atrocities, namely the bombing of Guernica, the massacres of Oradour-sur-Glane, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice and Sharpeville, and the extermination of Jews and other groups at Treblinka. The USA government called the comparison a "gross insult" and once again decided to freeze its diplomatic relations with Sweden (this time the freeze lasted for over a year).[20][21]

Despite such associations and contrary to stated Social Democratic Party policy, Sweden had in fact secretly maintained extensive military co-operation with NATO over a long period, and was even under the protection of a US military security guarantee (see Swedish neutrality during the Cold War).

Asked about Palme, former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once answered that he usually disliked the people he agreed with and liked the people he disagreed with, adding dryly: "So Palme, I liked - a lot".[citation needed] In response to Palme's remarks in a meeting with the US ambassador to Sweden ahead of the Socialist International Meeting in Helsingor in January 1976,[22] Kissinger asked the US ambassador to "(...) convey my personal appreciation to Palme for his frank presentation (...).[23]


People mourning Palme where he was assassinated in Stockholm 1986

Security had never been a major issue, and Olof Palme could often be seen without any bodyguard protection. The night of his murder was one such occasion. Walking home from a cinema with his wife Lisbet Palme on the central Stockholm street Sveavägen, close to midnight on February 28, 1986, the couple was attacked by an assassin. Palme was fatally shot in the back at close range. A second shot was fired at Lisbet Palme, the bullet grazing her back. She survived without serious injuries.

Police said that a taxi driver used his mobile radio to raise the alarm. Two young girls sitting in a car close to the scene of the shooting also tried to help the prime minister. He was rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival at 00:06 CET the next day. Mrs Palme's wound was treated and she recovered. Deputy Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson immediately assumed the duties as Prime Minister and as new leader of the Social Democratic Party, a post he would retain until 1991 (and then again in 1994-1996).

Two years later, Christer Pettersson (d.2004), a small-time criminal and drug addict, was arrested, tried and convicted for Palme's murder. Pettersson's conviction was later overturned on appeal to the Svea Court of Appeal. As a result the crime remains unsolved and a number of alternative theories as to who carried out the murder have since been proposed.

Palme had strong opinions on both the world powers in the middle of the Cold War. In fact, Swedish–American relations were at a record low due to Palme's rough criticism of the Vietnam War and the placement of nuclear weapons in Europe, which he opposed. Therefore there is a popular conspiracy theory[citation needed] that he was assassinated by either the Soviet KGB or the American CIA. South African assassin Athol Visser also discusses his involvement in the book Devil Incarnate describing it as part of P W Botha's apartheid government's campaign to silence domestic and foreign enemies.

In January 2011 the German magazine Focus cited German interrogation records in connection with another investigation from 2008 as showing that the assassination had been carried out by an operative of the Yugoslavian UDBA who now lives in Zagreb, Croatia.[24][25]


  1. ^ Nordstrom, Byron (2000). Scandinavia Since 1500. University of Minnesota Press, pg. 347. "The February 1986 murder of Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme near Sergelstorget in the middle of Stockholm's downtown shocked the nation and region. Political assassinations were virtually unheard-of in Scandinavia."
  2. ^ a b c http://www.unostamps.nl/person_palme.htm
  3. ^ Kenyon College Web page
  4. ^ Hendrik Hertzberg, “Death of a Patriot”, in: Idem, Politics. Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004) 263-266, there 264
  5. ^ Elected as an MP
  6. ^ Olof Palme - En levande vilja: Tal och intervjuer
  7. ^ Einhorn, Eric and John Logue (1989). Modern Welfare States: Politics and Policies in Social Democratic Scandinavia. Praeger Publishers, pg 60. ISBN 0275931889 "Olof Palme was perhaps the most 'presidential' Scandinavian leader in recent decades, a fact that may have made him vulnerable to political violence."
  8. ^ "Han gödslade jorden så att Palmehatet kunde växa", Dagens Nyheter, 25 February 2006
  9. ^ Olof Palme: the controversy lives on, The Local, 27 February 2006
  10. ^ Dagens Nyheter 2007-01-23
  11. ^ "Detta borde vara vårt arv" by Åsa Linderborg, Aftonbladet 2006-02-28
  12. ^ http://karisable.com/palme.htm
  13. ^ http://info.lanic.utexas.edu/la/cb/cuba/castro/1975/19750729
  14. ^ Socialists in the Recession: The Search for Solidarity by Giles Radice and Lisanne Radice
  15. ^ Taxation, Wage Bargaining and Unemployment by Isabela Mares
  16. ^ http://web.comhem.se/dier/Swedish%20Prime%20Ministers.htm
  17. ^ Daniel Ekeroth: SWEDISH SENSATIONSFILMS: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema, (Bazillion Points, 2011) ISBN 978-09796163-6-5.
  18. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8cqbdE0j64
  19. ^ Holst, Karen. "Palme's political legacy 'put Sweden on the map'". The Local. The Local Europe AB. http://www.thelocal.se/32314/20110228/. Retrieved 23 March 2011. 
  20. ^ a b Andersson, Stellan. "Olof Palme och Vietnamfrågan 1965-1983" (in Swedish). olofpalme.org. http://www.olofpalme.org/ingangar/tema/vietnam/. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  21. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvANQqWFsW4 The speech
  22. ^ "Discusssion with Prime Minister Palme of Socialist Meeting in Denmark - January 18–19". United States Department of State. 1976-01-15. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=110438&dt=2082&dl=1345. Retrieved 2010-11-28. 
  23. ^ "Palme's views on socialist international meeting". United States Department of State. 1976-01-16. http://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=110437&dt=2082&dl=1345. Retrieved 2010-11-28. 
  24. ^ (German) Hufelschulte, Josef (2011-01-16). "Heiße Spur im Mordfall Palme". Focus. http://www.focus.de/politik/ausland/focus-recherchen-heisse-spur-im-mordfall-palme_aid_590595.html. Retrieved 2011-01-18. "Blazing a trail for the murder of Palme" 
  25. ^ (Croatian) Despot, Zvonimir (2011-01-16). "Udbini prsti: Ubojica švedskog premijera '86. još živi u Zagrebu". Večernji list. http://www.vecernji.hr/vijesti/udbini-prsti-ubojica-svedskog-premijera-86-jos-zivi-zagrebu-clanak-240701. Retrieved 2011-01-18. "UDBA involvement: Killer of a Swedish Premier '86. still lives in Zagreb" 


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  • Hermansson, Håkan; Wenander, Lars (1987), Uppdrag: Olof Palme : hatet, jakten, kampanjerna, Stockholm: Tiden, ISBN 91-550-3340-7 
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John Douglas-Gray in his thriller 'The Novak Legacy' ISBN 978-0-7552-1321-4


Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen dedicated his 1986 album Trilogy in the memory of Olof Palme.

See also

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Gösta Skoglund
Minister for Communications
Succeeded by
Svante Lundkvist
Preceded by
Ragnar Edenman
Minister for Education
Succeeded by
Ingvar Carlsson
Preceded by
Tage Erlander
Prime Minister of Sweden
Succeeded by
Thorbjörn Fälldin
Leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party
Succeeded by
Ingvar Carlsson
Preceded by
Thorbjörn Fälldin
Prime Minister of Sweden

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