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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

The Assassination of Olof Palme


This is the most famous political assassination of the Nordic countries: late on the wintry night of February 28, 1986, Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden, was fatally shot while he was walking home with his wife after seeing a movie.

In his time Olof Palme was loved by all those good-willing people, who were dreaming of the world peace. And he was equally disliked by those who supported the idea that the peace must be achieved either under the dictates of the United States or those of the Communist Soviet Union. Palme was a charismatic leader who had a big smile, which was, according to a person’s own opinions, either lovely or demonic. He was internationally hailed as a champion against war and oppression in all forms. He dared to resist both the United States and the Soviet Union, and he was especially known as a vocal opponent of the segregationist racial policy of the South African Republic called Apartheid.

As Prime Minister and the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Sweden, Palme had built what was labelled folkhemmet, or the people’s home, where the government took good care of each citizen – but which was also called by its critics “a nanny state.” A West German author and poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1929-2022) wrote in 1982: “It ought not be surprising that the Swedish state’s power has grown unopposed, creeping into all the cracks of daily life, regulating people’s doings in a way without precedent in free societies.”

Palme’s assassination was a national shock in Sweden, which has not been engaged in a war since the days of Napoleon. Like with the Kennedy assassination in the United States, the Swedes thought that this cruel act of violence had taken away the champion of one of the world’s most renowned democracies. And just like in the Kennedy murder, though a perpetrator was discovered, his guilt would never be proved, at least not in a manner which was satisfactory to the grieving public.

The information about Palme and his assassination, used in this study, is taken from the book The Life and Death of Olof Palme by a Swedish free journalist Pelle Neroth Taylor. It is available on Amazon.

1. From the Upper Class to the Lower Classes

Though when he would enter politics, Olof Palme would be a Socialist, he was born to a very aristocratic family. And because of his later apostasy to Socialism, Palme was held among the Swedish upper class as a class traitor. Also, Palme’s grandfather Sven Palme had been a supporter of Finland’s Friends, the committee of Swedish aristocrats who supported the Finnish Whites against the Communists in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. One of the Swedish volunteers, who left to fight in Finland, was Sven’s son, the elder Olof Palme, who was killed by a machine gun fire at the battle of Tampere on April 3, 1918. Another uncle, Nils, also fought in Finland but survived. When the Swedish volunteers returned to Sweden and marched to Stockholm’s stadium to a patriotic celebration, the Swedish Social Democrats, who were standing along the marching route, spat at them and called them butchers. Many ex-volunteers found themselves blacklisted and ostracized from workplaces by the Socialist labor unions.

Olof Palme was born on January 30, 1927, as the son of Gunnar Palme, who had remained in Sweden during the Finnish Civil War. Gunnar Palme died when Olof was six years old, and the boy was sent to live in the Sigtuna boarding school, which trained the Swedish elite, kind of Sweden’s Eton. In 1947, when Palme was studying law at the Stockholm University, he got a scholarship from the American Scandinavian Foundation to study at Kenyon College, Ohio. When he was studying there, he loved the informality of America compared to the upper-class lifestyle he was used to.

During his summer trips in America, Palme visited and interviewed the legendary union leader Walter Reuther, whom Senator Barry Goldwater declared to be a “dangerous menace” and “more dangerous than anything the Sputnik or the Soviet Union might do to America.” Palme was also hitchhiking and greyhounding across the United States, staying at YMCAs, eating cheeseburgers in drugstores and sleeping on night buses. Once while traveling on a bus in the deep South, Palme sat in the back with the blacks, rather than near the front with the other whites. When he was told by a couple of young white men to move to the front of the bus, he refused, and, as he wrote in a letter home, escaped beating only because they took him for “a crazy foreigner.”

Mårten Palme on the lap of his father Olof Palme in 1967

When Palme returned to Sweden, he was chosen as the international secretary of the Swedish National Union of Students. These were the times of the Communist uprisings in the Eastern European countries. The Communists had already infiltrated and taken over the International Union of Students, based in Prague, in 1946. Palme worked hard to set up an alternative students’ union in the West. He was appalled by Stalinist demagoguery, and was shocked by the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. He struggled, but eventually succeeded, in forming the breakaway grouping called the International Student Congress, which, as was later revealed, had been funded by a front group of the CIA.

2. Into the Corridors of Power

In 1953 Palme was hired as the assistant of Prime Minister Tage Erlander. Erlander was the leader of the Social Democrats, who had ruled Sweden for 20 years. Erlander became Palme’s protector and mentor in politics. So much so, that Palme put off marriage to his fiancée Lisbeth for four years, so that he, as he told her, could travel light while fulfilling commitments of his new job. Olof and Lisbeth finally tied the knot in Copenhagen in 1956.

Lisbeth and Olof Palme in the 1950s

As the assistant of the Prime Minster, Palme now had an office next in the cabinet building on the Mynttorget square in Stockholm’s old medieval center Gamla Stan (Old Town). In his office Palme worked nights and weekends, constantly smoking Kent cigarettes as he wrote speeches, took notes, prepared election manifestos, and functioned as the general sounding board for Erlander. He lived for his work, sometimes sleeping on a narrow couch under a wooden blanket provided by a kindly janitor.

The members of the Palme clan were deeply disappointed with his career choice. His grandmother Hanna von Born, who had been born in Finland, and whose eldest son Olof had died fighting against the Reds in the Finnish Civil War, said: “I regret the fact that Olof has placed his great gifts in the service of a party that is busy destroying our country.”

Erlander continued to march Palme through the ranks. He was elected as member of the Swedish parliament, then became a minister without portfolio, and then the communications minister. One of the tasks of Palme was to preside over the switching Sweden from the left-hand traffic to the right-hand traffic, a reform carried out, after years of preparation, on September 3, 1967, on the so-called Dagen H (The H Day).

3. An International Troublemaker

Palme made his first foray into foreign affairs in 1965, when he attended the conference organized by the Broderskap (Brotherhood) in Gävle north of Stockholm. Broderskap was the Christian branch of the Social Democrat Party, and the most outward-looking, even interventionist, branch of the party. At the conference Palme gave a speech where he strongly denounced the US intervention in Vietnam. In his speech Palme articulated what many European leaders thought, but did not dare to say aloud. The speech contained phrases like: “It is an illusion to believe you can counter demands for social justice with military power.” And: “The fundamental values of democratic socialism place a duty upon us to stand on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors, on the side of the poor and impoverished against their masters and exploiters.”

The US embassy in Sweden called on Erlander to issue a protest, and apparently began to keep a close eye on Palme at this point. In a long character analysis, forwarded to the CIA, the speech was seen as a start of an anti-American power base which could lead Palme to become the new Prime Minister.

The disturbance in the Swedish-US relations was brief, though – this time. But then came February 1968, when a torchlit demonstration for peace took place in snowy, wintry Stockholm. There Palme, carrying a burning torch, and wearing a Russian-style bearskin hat, marched at the head of the demonstration of hundreds of people, side by side with the North Vietnamese Moscow ambassador Nguyen Tho Chan. After the ambassador had spoken, Palme made his toughest speech so far on the Vietnam war. He described the war not only as a threat to the democratic ideals in Vietnam, but to the whole world. He added: “If you are talking about democracy in Vietnam it is obvious it is represented to a higher decree by the FNL [the Vietcong] than by the United States and its alleged juntas.”

The news photo of Palme, transmitted on the wires, appeared in hundreds of international newspapers, and put him on the map of American public opinion. Palme told an interviewer on the Swedish television that he did not regret a thing. To make matters worse, Sweden became the only destination that accepted US deserters and draft dodgers of the Vietnam war. Some nine hundred deserters arrived, bringing with them marijuana and the fashions and music of the US counterculture. Many deserters also started careers and families in Sweden and returned only in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter declared pardon for them.

As the education minister, Palme was highly influential, and during his tenure the wings of radicalism swept through the classrooms. The old-style Swedish school teacher was a man, politically conservative, a specialist, and a graduate of one of the old elite universities. The new teachers tended to be female, left wing, young, generalists, and graduates of some new university. Schools became less academic, more egalitarian, and a number of subjects, e.g. Latin, fell out of the curriculum. History was downgraded in importance, and subjects like childcare studies became compulsory.

Another area, where Palme’s policies had an impact on the Swedish people, was television. He gave the impetus to a new state TV channel, TV2, which had a pronouncedly radical profile. A genuine and not untypical program listing for one evening in 1975 comprised a Danish film about a boy in a psychiatric clinic, a show about a railway in Tanzania built by Mao’s China, a debate about paperback thrillers and the dangers of violence in literature affecting readers, followed by a program about socialist battle songs against Franco. American cartoons, much criticized by Swedish child psychologists for their “violence,” were virtually absent from the schedules. In their place were brought figures like the socialist superhero Captain Zoom, who was going to “save the world from child poverty,” and the East German Sandmännchen (Sandman) and his narcotically peaceful and inconsequential adventures.

Unser Sandmännchen was an East German children’s bedtime television program using stop-motion animation. It was presented from 1959 until 1991.

Though American comics like Donald Duck were not similarly censored in the way the Disney TV cartoons were, more preferable were socially and politically correct graphic novels, such as one featuring a heroic feminist Swedish doctor taking on the Ian Smith regime of Rhodesia. Another comic book taught children as young as six how they could go on strike against their parents.

4. Palme’s First Term as Prime Minister

In the elections of 1968, the Social Democrats won their greatest victory ever in the terms of the national vote. At the party congress of 1969, Palme was voted unanimously to succeed Erlander as the party leader. And thus he, at the age of 42, became Sweden’s new Prime Minister.

The United States was not pleased with the switch of power, and the Socialists of Sweden felt similar displeasure for America. When USA appointed the new ambassador Jerome Holland, who was a black man, he was jeered by a crowd of Swedish students and American war deserters as “Lyndon’s house nigger.” Palme criticized this thuggish behavior, unconvincingly to some.

Jerome “Brud” Holland (1916-1985), the United States Ambassador to Sweden

In 1973, the popular King Gustaf VI Adolf died at the age of 91. He was succeeded by his 27-year-old grandson Carl XVI Gustaf. Prime Minister Palme immediately signed a deal which deprived monarchy of all its functional powers. Under the new legislation, the King no longer chaired the cabinet meetings. Though this role of the King as the head of the government had already for a long time been a mere formality, it had given him arguably much more day-to-day informal influence on Swedish politics than, for example, the British monarch had. Other reforms of the legislation stripped the King his power to call the Prime Minister to form a cabinet, and to open the parliament with all the royal regalia. Instead the opening of the parliament was now done by the speaker in a regular suit. Sweden, under Olof Palme, became a republic in all but in name.

King Carl XVI Gustaf with Olof Palme

Palme also set about changing the social climate in Sweden by boosting the rights of women and creating an extreme egalitarian society. Childcare was expanded and women were encouraged to go out and work. The married tax allowance, which had allowed the single wage earner in the family to pay less taxes if his wife stayed at home, was abolished, while the maximum marginal tax rate was increased. These tax reforms effectively made it impossible for husbands, however highly paid, to support their families on their own income alone. Housewives basically disappeared. Nearly all women went, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to work for an income of their own. The media did their part by stigmatizing the husfru, the housewife, as someone who was being oppressed; and if she claimed she wasn’t oppressed, she was doubtless suffering from “false consciousness.” The job was well done. In 1974, 80 percent of women were active in the workplace.

The philosophy of Palme’s state was to free the individual, especially the middle-aged, from “the burdens” of his surroundings. These burdens were, for example, looking after their old parents, or being prevented by their young children from being free to go out and work. Therefore state care was promoted for the elderly, children, and the needy, and this creation was called The Welfare State.

In theory, all this sounded good. But there is, of course, a problem, when one starts to delegate and concentrate powers to a single focus, that is, to the state. In the welfare state theory, the state must be very powerful and intrusive, in order to prevent the abuse by individuals against other individuals, or of the institutions against the individuals. But there remains, as always, the challenge, which, for example, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America faced after they set themselves free from the oppressive rule of the British: how do you prevent the state itself from becoming abusive or oppressing the individual rights? Or, as Juvenal put it: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – who watches the watchers themselves?

Under Palme, the average worker was on a tax rate of 60 percent. And the top tax rates were over 90 percent, and they kicked in at much lower levels of income than for example in Britain, which, under the Labour government, also ran very high marginal taxes. This tax money was spent on the huge public sector created by Palme. The Swedish public sector expenditures were something of the order of 70 percent of the gross domestic product, an astonishing figure compared to the 45 percent that was the OECD average. And these expanded number of public sector workers rewarded Palme’s paychecks with their reliable votes for the Social Democratic Party.

Because the high tax wedges discouraged hard work, many business leaders became increasingly critical of Palme. To avoid high taxes, people also did jobs on the side, bartering services or paying cash in hand to avoid the ferocious taxman. To hunt down the tax-evaders, laws were passed that granted extensive powers to the tax police. These included the right to open people’s mail or turn up and search homes without a warrant. In 1976 two plainclothes police officers arrested Sweden’s most famous movie director Ingmar Bergman. He was charged with the income tax evasion. The impact of the event on Bergman was devastating. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in a state of deep depression. Though the charges were later dropped, Bergman moved to live in West Germany and vowed never to work in Sweden again, despite pleas by Palme and other high public figures.

Ingmar Bergman directing his movie “The Serpent’s Egg” during his exile

Another internationally known Swedish artist, author Astrid Lindgren, the creator of Pippi Longstocking, was taxed 102 percent of her annual earnings, i.e. more than she earned, under the new law that put no upper limit on the freelancers’ surcharge taxes. In return Lindgren, who had always been a voter of the Social Democrats, wrote a fairy story about the country of Mosimania and its mad tax collectors, which was clearly about Sweden and Palme.

The already strained Sweden-US relations came to a factual on the morning of December 23, 1972, when Palme gave his most uncompromising and controversial remarks ever on the Vietnam war on TV2. Following what became known as the Christmas Bombings of Hanoi, Palme spoke in a slow and mournful tone:

One should refer to things by their accurate designation. What is happening right now in Vietnam is a form of torture. What they do is tormenting people. They torment a nation in order to humiliate it, compel them to subjugate with brute force. That is why the bombings are an infamy. Of such there are many in modern history. They are often linked to a name: Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville and Treblinka. In all those places violence was triumphant, but the judgment of history came down hard on those who were responsible. Now there is another name to add to the list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972.

Guernica referred to the bombing of the Basque town of that name in 1937 by Franco’s forces, and it is sometimes called the first air attack on a defenseless civilian population. Oradour was a village in southwestern France whose population of 644 was massacred by a unit of the Waffen SS over few short hours. A church with women and children inside was set on fire, while the men of the village were shot in the legs, covered with gasoline, and then burned alive. But the most wounding comparison was with Treblinka, the death camp in Poland, where 800,000 Jews had died in gas chambers.

A few hours later the remarks of Palme detonated across the Atlantic. The editors at Reuters knew exactly what the top line in the story was, and the news agency’s telegram began with the words: “Sweden’s prime minister Olof Palme said today that the bombings were ill deeds comparable to the Nazi massacres in the second world war.”

According to reports, when President Nixon’s Security Advisor Henry Kissinger heard the news, he was sick with anger. Kissinger’s family had fled Nazi Germany to America when he was a boy, and thirteen of his relatives had died in concentration camps. The State Department rang the Swedish embassy in Washington, DC, and wanted to get hold of Sweden’s ambassador Hubert de Besche, but he was out on Christmas shopping. Once he had been told and he made his way to the State Department, he was given the worst telling off in his life. Since, as the ambassador was told, Sweden didn’t value her relations with the United States, it was no point for the Swedes to send their ambassador back to Washington after the Christmas holidays. In any event, there was no question of the American ambassador returning to Stockholm.

The withdrawal of an ambassador had happened only six times in US history: after the 1938 Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany; after the victory of Franco in the Spanish civil war; at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; when Castro seized power in Cuba; after the 1962 military coup in Peru; and at another military coup in 1963 in the Dominican Republic.

5. The 1976 Electoral Loss

Palme’s first tenure as prime minister lasted for seven years. He won two elections, those of 1970 and 1973. But in September 1976, the so-called bourgeois bloc, i.e. the Centre Party, the Liberals, and the Moderates, won the general election. The news of the Swedish political earthquake made waves around the world and cheered conservatives everywhere. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative opposition leader against the British Labour cabinet, said triumphantly: “Across the world, from Australia to Sweden - - socialism is on the way out.”

The Centre, Liberal, and Moderate parties now formed a coalition cabinet. None of them had any government experience. Sweden had not seen a non-Socialist cabinet since 1932. Thorbjörn Fälldin, the Centre Party leader, was the new prime minister. Fälldin had attracted several categories of voters. His big catch was a resolute opposition to nuclear power. Sweden had, thanks to Palme, rapidly expanded the number of nuclear power plants since the first one was started up in 1972, and Fälldin’s strong opposition to it earned him the support of the ecologically sensitive young voters.

But after becoming the Prime Minister, Fälldin immediately reneged on his election promise in concession to his coalition partners, the Liberals and the Moderates, who were pronuclear. Fälldin gave the go-ahead to the opening of a new nuclear power plant. His supporters were furious. The debate rumbled on. The Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979, prompted Palme, though pro-nuclear, to call for a referendum. Held in 1980, the poll resulted in the victory for the second of the three options, i.e. a slow phase-out of nuclear power. But the politicians never acted on the referendum result.

While being the opposition leader against the government, Palme spent much time abroad, especially in Africa, on the mandate of the Socialist International. He made many visits to the frontline states in vicinity of white South African Republic. The newspapers made fun of the opposition leader’s absences. “Palme pays a visit to Sweden,” was one newspaper’s jokey headline when Palme stopped at Stockholm. A typical statement from Palme at around this time was that Apartheid was “a unique form of evil” and “the only form of tyranny which brands a person from birth on account of the color of his skin.” He also criticized Swedish companies that had invested in South Africa. In a parliamentary debate in 1977 Palme said: “Free human beings are more important than free movement of capital.” He also said that Sweden, instead of waiting for a United Nations decision, should unilaterally impose an investment ban, thus launching an unparalleled offensive against racism from the industrialized world.

6. Return to Power and the Assassination

After the elections of September 1982, after spending six years in the opposition wilderness, Palme was back in power. He now entered in a big time into world politics in the era of the “Cold War” between the United States and Soviet Union.

Palme now announced that he supported the goal of making Scandinavia a nuclear weapons free zone. Of course, most of Scandinavia was nuclear-free in peacetime anyway. Part of the conditions of Norway’s and Denmark’s NATO membership had been to have no NATO nukes or troops stationed on their areas in peacetime. But the Soviets had six old Golf submarines, nuclear-armed, that could be moved in and out of the Baltic. There was also a dangerous Soviet nuclear submarine bastion at Murmansk on the Kola peninsula. Therefore there was no way Scandinavia would be nuclear-free, since the nuclear missile subs were the Soviet Union’s guarantee against a destructive first strike from the United States. The Soviets were not going to bargain those away.

Besides campaigning against the Soviet Union, Palme also opposed the rising stream of conservatism, personalized in the US President Ronald Reagan, and in the UK Premier Margaret Thatcher. During his last victorious election campaign of 1985, Palme spoke in a high school at Angered, telling the 900 pupils: “A society based on neoliberalism will be a cold one to live in. In such a society, people are each other’s enemies. In such a society, the individual is forced to buy his security at the cost of others. Just look at countries where neoliberalism has been tried out. In these societies, morale has collapsed.” It was clearly a reference to Great Britain and America.

Palme’s last month, February 1986, was a busy month for him. The big event of the month were the Apartheid days, where Palme gave the keynote speech, giving his support to his friends Oliver Tambo and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders.

But on Friday, February 28, Palme for once had a night off. In the morning he played tennis with his old friend Harry Schein, chairman of the Swedish state television. Palme beat Schein, which put him in a good mood. For the rest of the morning he made phone calls and talked to journalists, diplomats, and government officials.

Palme never liked being watched by bodyguards, and sometimes went without them when he walked within the triangle formed by his Gamla Stan apartment on Västerlånggatan 31, the Parliament, and the cabinet chancellery. On February 28, 1986, Palme dismissed his two regular detectives at lunchtime. He made some phone calls from his office in the afternoon. At 6 PM he headed back to his apartment, which was in just a few minutes’ walk from the Parliament. There his wife Lisbeth was waiting for him, and they made plans to go out and see a movie. Palme rang his 24-year-old second son Mårten Palme, and learned that he, too, was going to see a movie with his girlfriend. The film was Bröderna Mozart (The Mozart Brothers) by Suzanne Osten. The Palme couple ate their dinner around 8 PM. About 8:30, Palme took a couple of phone calls before they headed out. At least two calls came from party colleagues. Palme called for the bodyguards, but did not succeed in getting hold of them.

When Palme took his last call, from the former party secretary Sven Aspling, Lisbeth was already waiting by the door. They walked to the Gamla Stan metro station, and were seen by several people, who, among other things, commented on the lack of bodyguards. The Palmes took the subway train to the Rådmansgatan station, from where they walked to the Grand Cinema at Sveavägen, where Mårten Palme and his girlfriend were waiting for them.

When the movie was over, the Palmes, their son and his girlfriend, gathered outside on the pavement, as hundreds of people streamed past and around them. Mårten wanted to go for tea and discuss the movie. Palme was enthusiastic about the offer, but Lisbeth said she had a headache, and Mårten’s girlfriend had to get up early for work. It was now 11:05 PM. The couples said their farewells and the Palmes started walking south down on Sveavägen; there was an ice-cold wind and a thin layer of snow on the pavement.

The Palme murder scene in 1986

When Olof and Lisbeth arrived at the Tunnelgatan junction, 1,000 feet south from the cinema, a man moved out behind them, raised his magnum revolver, and shot Palme at point-blank range into the center of his back. Palme fell at the first shot and dragged his wife down to the icy pavement with him. The second shot narrowly missed Lisbeth as she twisted sideways. The bullet penetrated her coat and singed her back. It was a matter of mils, but she survived.

The murder scene in 2023

The killer decided against firing off a third bullet to deal definitively with Lisbeth. He quickly ran east down Tunnelgatan, past a stack of building cabins, up the long, steep, flight of outdoor stairs and was out of sight. This was a quieter, more residential area, a contrast to the traffic canyon of Sveavägen. Here was a network of streets, and it was easy to lose any pursuers. One witness started to chase the killer up the stairs but it was to no avail; he had disappeared.

Palme’s murderer run down the Tunnelgatan, then escaped up the stairs to Malmskillnadsgata

Though the police arrived within minutes, their actions became a huge source of controversy later. The police did not rope off the assassination spot properly, and therefore useful evidence was obliterated. They also did not close off the inner city, leaving the assassin plenty of time to disappear into the night. There were only few policemen involved in the murder chase on the night. There was a delay in the issuing of an alarm to the national police force, and so on.

7. The Suspect

In December 1988 the police investigators arrested an unemployed alcoholic and drug addict named Christer Pettersson, 42 years old. If Palme was Sweden’s Kennedy, Pettersson was her Lee Harvey Oswald.

Christer Pettersson’s police photo released to the media.

It was definitely established that Pettersson was in the central Stockholm on the night of February 28, 1986, scoring amphetamines. His drug dealer, a nightclub owner named Sigvard “Sigge” Cedergren, lived in the city center. In fact, Sigge’s apartment overlooked the Grand Cinema, on the opposite side of the road. Drug addicts sometimes used the foyer themselves on cold winter nights, waiting for Sigge to return from a nightclub he owned a couple of miles away. They would wait for the light to flick on in Sigge’s kitchen on the third floor, so that they could go and buzz on his doorbell and get their supplies.

Pettersson looked like a thug through and through. He was a hard man with a hard face, but he came from the middle class and had a high IQ of 130. His father had been an accountant, and he had been raised in a middle-class suburb in the 1950s. But Pettersson had been on a quite spectacular downwards-journey since his teens. There were early indications of severe psychiatric problems. He had managed to hold down a couple of manual jobs for short periods of time, but had always been fired after being caught stealing. Out of work, he had resorted to petty criminality and had, in fact, killed a man in 1971 with an old military bayonet he always carried with him.

Pettersson was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to psychiatric care. When he was released, he embarked on a criminal career that included numerous robberies and assaults, but no further killings. In early 1986, he was out of prison, living in a government-funded flat in the high-rise northern suburb of Rotebro, which is well known to Stockholmers as a train stop en route to Stockholm’s airport Arlanda. Pettersson had a daily routine which involved ambling down to Systembolaget, the state liquor store, to buy a bottle of vodka which he could fit in his jacket pocket. Afterwards he used to sit on the shopping center benches, or in someone’s apartment, drinking and talking to friends.

On the night of February 28, Pettersson had made a promise to Ulf Spinnars, a drug addict friend of his, to score amphetamines for the two of them. We know for sure that Pettersson took the train to the city center to get drugs from his dealer, Sigge Cedergren. When quizzed by the police in 1986, Pettersson said he had spent part of the evening at Sigge’s club Oxen, which was a few streets away from the murder scene. He had, he said, left his apartment in Rotebro early evening, and hung about the club, where he met Sigge. At 11 PM Pettersson had walked back to the Central Station, took the commuter train north out of Stockholm and got back to his apartment at midnight. There Spinnars, who was staying for the night and was sleeping on the floor of the kitchen, was waiting for him.

On waking up at eight on Saturday morning of March 1, Pettersson said he had opened a daily newspaper, and seen the tragic news of Palme’s death. He had cried because he “was a Social Democrat” and a “great fan” of the Prime Minister.

Because of Pettersson’s return at midnight, Ulf Spinnars was able to give him an alibi. The police, satisfied with the story, left Pettersson alone for now. But two and a half years later, in late 1988, the police started bugging him. They had shaken the criminal tree again and Pettersson’s name had come up among Stockholm’s underworld fraternity as a possible candidate for the murder of Palme.

The bugging of Pettersson didn’t produce anything incriminating. He talked ramblingly to his girlfriends about his cat and sometimes read aloud from the Bible. But the police also reinterviewed Ulf Spinnars, who changed his mind about what had happened on the night of Palme’s murder. Pettersson had come home later than Spinnars had initially claimed. He had got back to Rotebro at 1 AM, not midnight. The murder had taken place at 11:21 PM. It took 45 minutes to get to Rotebro from the city center by the suburban train. The police were overjoyed. Thanks to Spinnars’ change of mind, Pettersson no longer had an alibi.

In December 1988 police showed up at Pettersson’s apartment in Rotebro and took him into custody for questioning. At the station waited two witnesses, Mårten Palme, and Lars Eriksson, a 28-year-old air traffic controller, who had sat in his car parked outside the Grand Cinema, waiting to pick up his parents, and seen an unpleasant character pace back and forth in front of the cinema entrance. Both witnesses identified Pettersson from a line-up. This meant little on its own, since he might easily have been loitering around the cinema without being in any way involved in the murder. However, Lisbeth Palme was also brought in, and she too pointed out Pettersson from the 12-man line-up as the man she saw at the Tunnelgatan junction. His was the face of the killer, she said. She remembered it clearly.

Lisbeth Palme’s testimony was the central argument in the whole prosecution of Pettersson. It was enough to put him in custody. The prosecution case rested on the following scenario: it was an unlucky coincidence for the Palme couple, a chance encounter with a crazed addict. Palme, as the leading figure in Swedish public life, was the man to whom Pettersson harbored a deep hatred, on account of his general failure in life. It was a spontaneous, unpremeditated murder by the Swedish “lone gunman.” In July 1989, Pettersson was sentenced to life for the murder of Olof Palme.

8. No Solution Found

The verdict immediately went to appeal. Pettersson’s defense lawyers argued that it was a terrible combination of confusion, public pressure for a result, and poor police procedure, that got him convicted. Also, Ulf Spinnars changed his story once again in the open court. Pettersson’s return time was now back to midnight, giving him an alibi again. Spinnars told the court that he had been put under enormous pressure from the police interrogators, and that they had mentioned the 50 million kronor reward for the revealing information leading to Palme’s killer to him many times. Police corruption in other words. All this was enough to secure Pettersson’s release on appeal in 1989.

And there was another important finding. Evidence emerged, from journalistic digging after Pettersson was set free, that witnesses had seen fit men in their twenties, wearing down jackets with walkie-talkies in the vicinity of the areas where the Palme couple were walking that evening. A dozen witnesses had seen men with walkie-talkies just outside Palme’s home in Gamla Stan.

There were also a few observations near the murder scene before and after the assassination. In one instance, there was a person who had seen a man with a walkie-talkie standing along on a parallel street to Västerlånggatan, near Palme’s home, about an hour before the Palmes set out for the cinema. The man looked like a cop in civilian clothes, the man told his companions. The police showed no interest in this observation.

In another instance, there was a middle-aged woman, who had seen two men with walkie-talkies, standing inside the Gamla Stan metro station, immediately before the Palmes arrived to catch the subway to the Grand Cinema. One of them looked like “a security police kind of guy,” she thought.

Then there was a woman, living at Drottninggatan, just two blocks from the murder scene, who saw, through her window, a man sitting in a car and talking on a walkie-talkie some minutes before the movie was due to end. He said, “I can see them,” and sped off. The official explanation of the police that this was a security guard of a commercial company, turned out to be false. The security guard denied he had ever been there, and the details the witness had noticed about the car excluded the possibility it could have belonged to the security firm.

Just one minute before the murder, a man in the company of his wife, left a bingo hall 500 feet from the murder scene. They saw a fit, young military-looking man coming, half jogging, from the direction of the murder, speaking into a walkie-talkie. The man and his wife were never even asked to show where they had made this observation.

In all these, and several other cases, the witnesses were reasonable, trustworthy people, who could give detailed descriptions of what they had seen. Unfortunately, the official investigation simply denied the existence of these walkie-talkie observations. Ingemar Krusell, the deputy chief of the Palme murder case, wrote the main protocol for the Christer Pettersson prosecution in 1989. There he stated that there was “no evidence that the Palme couple were under observation.” He repeated this statement in a book he wrote about the Palme murder in 1998, where he constructed a case for Pettersson’s guilt. In 2011, Pelle Neroth Taylor emailed Krusell if he could ask some questions about the assassination. Krusell wrote back and said to go ahead with the questions. Taylor asked whether Krusell still maintained there were no walkie-talkie sightings, as he had written in his 1998 book. Taylor never received another reply from him.

9. Different Theories

After being acquitted by the court, Pettersson left his apartment in the presence of the press to visit his neighbor. He was photographed leaving with two bottles of Baileys and a bottle of Explorer Vodka, among other things, to indicate clearly how he planned to celebrate his release.

Pettersson quickly spent the compensation money on alcohol and drugs, but remained in the media spotlight as the prime suspect of the Palme murder. Even a special drink, named Rotebroare, after the Pettersson’s place of living, was created, consisting of mixture of Baileys and Explorer. Later on, in several TV and newspaper interviews, Pettersson was asked if he killed Palme, and he repeatedly engaged in what-if scenarios. These came very close to an admission of guilt, but his “confessions” were not treated seriously by the police. He later on always argued that he had simply come seeking money for yet another television appearance.

There were, after the murder, several theories of what had led to Palme’s assassination.

a. The Lone Gunman

Of all the scenarios, the lone gunman claim was definitely the most unlikely. According to it, Pettersson, who was loitering around Sigge’s club, waiting for his dealer, just happened to spot the Prime Minister heading into the Grand Cinema at 9 PM. Then he, supposedly, completely spontaneously, went to fetch a revolver, who knows from where, waited in the freezing cold for two hours for the Palmes to re-emerge at 11 PM, tailed them to the murder scene, fired off two shots, and then disappeared into the night. There was no obvious motive. Pettersson was not obviously political. He had no history of stalking the Prime Minister or sending him letters. Besides, there was nothing technical, like fingerprints, or even a weapon, to tie Pettersson to the murder. It was therefore no wonder that the prosecution’s case was thrown out in the appellant court.

b. Mistaken Identity

According to a documentary, made by the Swedish state television channel SVT in 2006, some of Pettersson’s friends claimed that he had confessed them as being Palme’s killer, but with the explanation that it was a case of mistaken identity. Allegedly, Pettersson had intended to kill his dealer Sigge. Cedergren used to make walks along Sveavägen at night and he resembled Palme both in appearance and in dress. Though this scenario is much more plausible than the lone gunman theory, because it at least gives Pettersson a drug-related criminal motive for the killing, it similarly lacks the technical evidence which was needed for a conviction, and of course it still would not explain the walkie-talkie men.

c. Domestic Conspiracy

There have been several theories concerning who might have planned to murder Palme using a hired assassin. Very soon after the murder, the police arrested a Swedish extremist, Victor Gunnarsson (labeled in the media as 33-åringen, “the 33-year-old”). Gunnarsson had connections to various extremist groups, among these the European Workers Party, the Swedish branch of the LaRouche movement. Pamphlets hostile to Palme, published by the party, were found in his home outside of Stockholm. He was, however, quickly released, after a dispute between the police and the prosecuting attorneys. He was later found murdered in 1993.

In an article in the German weekly Die Zeit in March 1995, it was suggested that the assassination was as the result of a conspiracy among Swedish right-wing extremist police officers.

d. Foreign Conspiracy

Many foreign governments or extremist groups have been claimed to bear the responsibility of the Palme murder.

After the murder, a Communist MP Jörn Svensson told the Swedish parliament that the assassins were probably from the CIA. According to him, it was incredibly odd that the assailant knew about the cinema visit of the Palme couple, and just as strange that he was aware that Palme was unaccompanied by bodyguards. Therefore no one could seriously argue that the murder was carried out because of a private reckoning or because of generalized feelings of hatred.

Likewise an Oregon businessman Richard Brenneke, who said that he was an ex-CIA operative, made claims of the CIA involvement. The CIA denied Brenneke’s allegations, calling them nonsense, and said that Brenneke had no association with the agency whatsoever.

But of all the foreign conspiracy theories, the South African connection seems most plausible. Ten years after the murder, in 1996, a former South African police officer Eugene de Kock testified in court that Palme had been shot and killed because of his opposition to the Apartheid regime and of his support of the ANC. Swedish police investigators visited South Africa, but were unable to uncover evidence to substantiate de Kock’s claims. A book that was published in 2007 suggested that a high-ranking Civil Cooperation Bureau operative named Athol Visser was responsible for planning and carrying out Olof Palme’s assassination.

One of the supporters of the South African connection is an investigative writer Jan Stocklassa, who has handed his piles of evidence to Swedish authorities – only to have his theories dismissed out of hand. He believes that the South African Apartheid regime colluded with Swedish far right groups to murder fiercely anti-Apartheid and pro-ANC Olof Palme.

e. The Joker Card

On June 10, 2020, the Swedish Prosecution Authority suddenly announced that they had solved the Palme murder, and identified as culprit a man named Stig Engström. Engström was a graphic designer for Skandia insurance, whom the police had initially dismissed as an attention seeker. But even after they brought him back into the frame, they had no clear evidence tying him to the murder. Chief prosecutor Krister Petersson admitted: “We have no clear information that can put a gun in the hand of Stig Engström.”

Because Engström died in the year 2000, the Prosecution Authority closed off the investigation, while also noting the lack of direct evidence. As Krister Petersson commented: “We hope that this will be accepted by the public.”

There have been, though, many voices of skepticism concerning Engström’s guilt. His relatives have complained to Swedish media that it couldn’t have been him. His wife Margareta told the prosecutors: “[Stig] would never be able to shoot someone because he couldn’t kill a fly. He did not have any knowledge of the shooting, and would have missed if he had tried.”

Jan Stocklassa didn’t believe the authorities either. He commented: “I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes. When I saw this stuff [about Engström], I was completely numb.”

10. Death of the Suspect

In 2003 Christer Pettersson contacted Mårten Palme and proposed a meeting between them. He said that he wanted to come clean because he had lately thought about religion, and wanted a clergyman to be present at their meeting. After long negotiations it was agreed that two police officers would be present at the meeting, but they would only be in the vicinity, and not hear the conversation. The clergyman would be the only one who would hear what the men would talk. But two weeks before the scheduled meeting, Pettersson had a nasty fall, went into a coma, and died at Karolinska University Hospital on 29 September 2004.

As with the Kennedy murder, the assassination of Olof Palme continues to be a center of interest and dispute. All the marks of a conspiracy are there, and the hasty and sudden death of the prime suspect only increased speculations about possible true perpetrators. How come, just before the suspect seemed ready to come clean, he died in suspicious circumstances? As Sherlock Holmes says in one of the classic radio adaptations: The arm of coincidence is long indeed, but not as long as that.

Olof Palme was and remains the hero of the liberal and leftist world, a brave defiant of both Capitalism and Communism. And no matter who killed him, or organized his assassination, he is seen as a martyr for democracy and Socialism.

Olof Palme’s grave in Stockholm’s Adolf Fredrik cemetery

By all evidence it seems most likely that Pettersson really was the assassin. But who might have orchestrated the murder will most likely remain a secret buried in the vaults of history, like the missing murder weapon has remained. Throughout the murder investigation, Swedish police test-fired approximately 500 Magnum revolvers. The investigation placed particular emphasis on tracking down ten Magnum revolvers which were reported stolen at the time of the Palme murder. Only one revolver remained unlocated, a weapon stolen from the Stockholm home of Swedish filmmaker Arne Sucksdorff in 1977. And the person who stole the weapon was a friend of Sigge Cedergren, who claimed on his deathbed that he had lent a gun of the same type to Christer Pettersson two months prior to the assassination.

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