Theories now abound on who killed Sweden’s prime minister—27 years ago

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The pool of blood on a Stockholm City pavement where Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated shortly before midnight on Friday, Mar. 1, 1986 in Stockholm.
The pool of blood on a Stockholm City pavement where Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated shortly before midnight on Friday, Mar. 1, 1986 in Stockholm.
Image: AP Photo / Borje Thuresson

It has been a winter of assassination here in Sweden.  Almost 27 years ago, Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down on a Stockholm street as he walked to the movies with his wife. The case has never been solved and draws comparisons with the assassination of JFK for its notoriety and legion of conspiracy theories; 130 people have confessed to the murder, about 12,000 have been accused, and 450 possible murder weapons have been tested.

In the past few months, Palme has dominated the headlines of Stockholm’s afternoon tabloids as if he was still in power.  First came Call Girl, a political thriller set in the 1970s in which a Palme-like politician buys sex from an under-aged girl, leading Palme’s family to report the film for slander. Then there was a feature-length documentary, Olof Palme: Loved and Hated, on Palme’s entire life and career.  The police have also appointed a new “supercop” to lead the still open investigation, and there have also been a run of new “revelations” in the media on the murder.

To top it all off came A Pilgrim’s Death (En pilgrims död)—a four-part miniseries on the main state channel based on three novels by Leif GW Persson.  The first episode drew 1.8 million viewers in a country of 9.4 million. In the novels, two rouge former members of SAPO, the Swedish security police, lie behind the assassination, and the first episode was full of allusions to Sweden’s precarious position in the 1980s as a neutral country torn between the US and the USSR, when people feared Palme was paving the way for a Soviet takeover even as he embraced secret military cooperation with NATO and the US.

But Sweden was not just any neutral country and Palme not just any prime minister. Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s embodied both the elusive promise of the Middle Way between capitalism and communism, and it also stood for a brave, human and provocative leftist politics that gave it far more influence than normal—a strong independent voice in a bipolar world.

That’s why the Palme conspiracies are so far reaching and so morbidly entertaining. Was it Kurdish guerrillas? An Indian arms deal gone wrong?  South Africa apartheid supporters or maybe the Yugoslav secret service?  Or maybe it was the CIA trying to cover up some facet of the Iran-Contra fallout?

And those are just the international ones. Could it have been right-wing police officers? Or disgruntled industrialists or a secret “stay behind” army organized by, again, the CIA?

The only person actually charged in the killing was Christer Petterson, a drug addict and petty criminal who was convicted but later released for lack of evidence.  Yet Palme’s family is convinced he actually was the murderer.

In 1998, Warren Hoge wrote in the New York Times:

Arne Ruth, an author and former editor in chief of the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, was more blunt. ‘After the assassination,’ he said, ‘the total failure of the judicial system to handle the case was in a way an even worse disaster for Sweden.’

Palme’s murder in Sweden symbolizes a greater loss of innocence and presaged a dramatic fall from grace.  For just five years after Palme’s death, Sweden’s banking system essentially collapsed.  The country acquitted itself magnificently in crisis, by most accounts, making it a trendy model of success when financial crises swept the world in 2007 and 2008.

But, regardless of Sweden’s current economic health, the crash in the early 1990s was the end of decades of almost euphoric economic development and social advances.  Sweden adjusted its expectations and got in line—it joined the EU, increased cooperation with NATO (even if it won’t join … yet), sends soldiers to Afghanistan and warplanes over Libya, and has cut the welfare state to below the OCED average by some measures.

The country is more about branding and business these days, and it’s all working, with Sweden near the top of indices on gender equality, happiness, innovation and competitiveness, to name a few. And now this new Sweden is the focus of a glowing special report in the Economist on the redefined—meaning more conservative and more modest—Nordic model.

But, clearly, the murder of Palme haunts Swedes with the loss of their utopian glow and the shredding of their sense of safety. You see this in the way that Stieg Larsson mined dark Sweden to create Lisbeth Salander’s ordeals in the Millennium trilogy and also in the defeated gloom of Henning Mankell’s Wallander books and movies. So if Swedes can’t get the satisfaction of finding the real killer, more than 20% of the entire population still tuned in on Feb. 3  to the see the final episode of a TV show that will give them some kind of answer, and closure, even if a fictional one.