Sweden ‘s former prime minister , Olof Palme, was a pragmatic social democrat who dreamed of a fairer world, an avant-garde who sought a ‘third way’ between socialism and capitalism decades before British Labour.
He was assassinated on February 28, 1986 at 11:21 p.m. by Stig Engström, known as “the man from Skandia”, after the name of the company where he worked. Engström, who committed suicide in 2000, was a military-trained far-right who was always among the suspects. The Swedish authorities consider the case closed with the almost absolute certainty that Engström shot Palme but without knowing if he did it at his own risk or if an intellectual author was hiding behind.
After years of theories of all kinds, the Swedish authorities believe they are sure who killed Palme. There was talk of Kurdish militias, Swedish far-right groups, the CIA, Mossad, the KGB, apartheid South Africa. The Swedish Police keeps more than 100 “confessions”. Some people were arrested.
Christer Petterson, a drug addict and felon with a criminal record, was eventually convicted and imprisoned. Shortly after, a court declared the verdict null and void for lack of sufficient evidence. He always denied being the murderer. No investigation was fruitful (there were serious police failures) and little by little the case was disappearing from political priorities. Dozens of books try to shed light on the intellectual authorship of the crime.
Thirty-four years after his death, Palme remains a mythical figure for European social democracy, a leader who marked an era, who fought on the world stage well above the weight of his country and whose murder caused a political commotion in Europe . . After his death, Palme was compared to figures such as Gandhi, Archbishop Romero or Luther King.
He had been raised in a relatively wealthy and conservative family and had trained as a jurist at Stockholm University and the American Kenyon College in Ohio. At the age of 19 he joined the Swedish Social Democratic Party and upon finishing his university studies he began to work in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Tage Erlander. In 1957 he was elected deputy.
After being minister of various portfolios for more than a decade, he was appointed prime minister in 1969 when he was 42 years old. He ruled for eight years, until 1976. After six years of conservative government, in 1982 he won again.
The social democratic leader was a heterodox leader, loved as a prophet by many, hated by a few but powerful
His relationship with the figure of the Quixote character was initiated by his friend Felipe González when he gave him a copy of the masterpiece of Spanish literature when Palme turned 50. He then said that Don Quixote was “an obstinate, stubborn, someone moved by an idea” and that precisely “this is how it should be in the struggle for peace.” González had written to him as a dedication: “If he could serve you as a good travel companion, like me, I would be fulfilling his mission.” González thus thanked Palme for his fight against Francoism.
The 1975 image in which he begs for money in the streets of Stockholm to help the Spanish democratic opposition – a way of raising awareness among Swedes – is one of the historical photos of late Francoism. He barely got 18,000 pesetas at the time but above all he got the death rattles of the Franco dictatorship to cover the covers of half the planet’s press.
The Social Democratic leader was a heterodox leader, loved as a prophet by many, hated by a few but powerful. Palme was consistent. As prime minister he publicly defended the same thing he had always defended, the struggle of the oppressed, from Palestinians to Vietnamese, from Argentine, Chilean or Uruguayan dissidents to US ethnic minorities. And he enforced those policies: Sweden gave asylum to American deserters who refused to go to the Vietnam War.
In an unusual move at the time, he gave 500,000 immigrants in Sweden the same rights as nationals, including voting rights. Palme is responsible for the fact that Sweden has been a haven for the persecuted for decades. In proportion to its population, it was the European country that accepted the most Syrian refugees in 2015.
He had political dreams that went against the two great superpowers of the time, such as the creation of a denuclearized Europe . Palme was a Third Worlder, he applauded the decolonizations and stepped on calluses, but he received the respect of his European peers. He was ironic, smart as hunger and very clear convictions. His opponents called him pedantic. But he was consistent in applying in politics what he always thought. The defense of the poor, of the damned of the Earth, of peace. His mediatory work was key to ending the war between Iraq and Iran.
Palme was a Third Worlder, he applauded the decolonizations and stepped on calluses, but he received the respect of his European peers.
He sought fairer relations between countries, traveled through Africa and denounced apartheid when that fight had not reached the European chancelleries. He opposed the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and its interventionism in third countries. He did not make friends among the greats. He condemned the US pro-coup interference in Latin America and the Soviet interventions in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia.
They said he lived in Utopia. He replied that without utopias he could not live. One of his utopias was going to be launched when he was assassinated: an industrial reconversion so that the Swedish arms companies would become civilian industries. In 1969, in an interview with David Frost, he said: “The moment people start thinking about his obituaries they start to get scared, he doesn’t dare to do things and loses the vitality of him. As long as we are on Earth, we have to make life as decent as possible. That is the basis of my political ideology.” In another interview he said: “Vietnam, Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka. Violence triumphed but posterity condemned its perpetrators.”
Until the dream ended with a bullet in the back on February 28. Records say he was cold, minus 3 degrees. It was night, 11:21 p.m. He was coming back from the cinema, walking along Sveavagen Avenue in Stockholm with his wife Lisbet. No escort. A man came up behind him and fired. Palme agonized for a few minutes. A man died. A myth was born, the European Kennedy.