Olof Palme was the Swedish Prime Minister. He was known for his refusal to align with the superpowers and his support of many third-world liberation movements. Between his stints at being PM he’d served as a special mediator for the UN in the war between Iran and Iraq. He was the first Western head of government to visit Cuba after its revolution.
It wasn’t all good though, as he was criticised for his support of third world leaders with horrendous records of human rights abuse.
At home, he was a supporter of women’s rights, free university education, a good standard of free healthcare for all, unemployment benefits, workers’ rights … basically lots of things that made him very popular.
Hence, security was never seen as a big necessity and when he was ‘off-duty’ if was often non-existent.
On 28th February 1986, he was walking home from the cinema with his wife. It was late, close to midnight, and he and his wife were alone.
He was shot in the back at close range by an attacker who then fired at his wife. His wife wasn’t seriously hurt and survived the attack. The PM was rushed to hospital (a taxi driver used his radio to raise the alarm), but was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival.
Sweden went into shock. This was the sort of thing that happened in America, not in safe Sweden. Of course there was a big police investigation, but it was two years before anyone was arrested and convicted. The assassin was a small-time thief and junkie with a previous record of manslaughter.
Within a year however, Christer Pettersson was freed at appeal as it was decided there hadn’t been enough evidence (and what there was was too dubious) to have convicted him in the first place.
Since then conspiracy theorists have had a field day. Owing to Palme’s criticism of the US (in Vietnam for example) and apartheid era South Africa, both the CIA and the South African security forces have been accused of being involved in his death.
The national obsession with his murder is still strong nearly thirty years later. Only recently a Swedish national newspaper was given access to 15 boxes of files belonging to the late Stieg Larsson (author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) who had conducted his own investigation into the assassination.
Over the years, in addition to the CIA and the South Africans, suspects have included the Yugoslavian security forces, Swedish security forces, right-wing Swedish groups and the Kurdish separatist PKK movement.
Many people have confessed to the murder (around 130), but these confessions have been discounted. Alibis for suspects have been withdrawn, others have been given. But with no new hard evidence it seems the identity and motivation of Palme’s killer is going to remain a mystery.
As I was in Stockholm and I’d read a bit about this case and found it quite intriguing, I decided to visit the church where he was buried.
Adolf Fredrik Church is beautiful. It was built in the 18th century to replace an earlier wooden church. Palme is not the only person of note to have been buried there. Theologian René Descartes’ remains were originally interred here, but were later removed to France.
There was a monument inside the church dedicated to René Descartes.
And also one dedicated to Sven Hedin; explorer, geographer and map-maker extraordinaire. He travelled extensively in Central Asia during the 1800s becoming an expert on Tibet, mapping the Great Wall of China, uncovering buried Buddhist cities in China and publishing the first atlas on Central Asia.
Leaving the interior of the church, I wandered around the surrounding gardens and graveyard and found what I’d come to see.
The simple stone memorial with his signature carved into it was so much nicer than a big elaborate monument would have been.
Most of the pictures I’ve seen since have shown flowers laid at its base, but the day I was there, there were none. Just the simple memorial with a young tree growing alongside.