One Winter’s Night

Gunnar Pettersson

  • Death of a Statesman: The Solution to the Murder of Olof Palme by Ruth Freeman
    Hale, 205 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7090 3698 1

Facts are hard to come by in the Olof Palme case. On the corner of Sveavägen-Tunnelgatan in central Stockholm, at 21 minutes past 11 p.m. on 28 February 1986, the Swedish Prime Minister was shot dead with a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. Despite the number of eye-witnesses, 23 in all, no more is known about the murderer than that he was dressed in dark clothes and escaped by the Tunnelgatan alleyway.

More than three years later everything else remains circumstance, hypothesis and conspiracy theory. Two Ministers of Justice as well as a number of public prosecutors and police investigators have resigned in the wake of the affair. The official investigation has been investigated by investigators who were themselves subsequently investigated. The Constitutional Committee of the Swedish Parliament is on permanent stand-by to look into allegations of every brand of official misconduct, from the unlawful bugging of senior politicians to the passing of classified information to unauthorised people in return for sexual favours. Meanwhile the Bofors arms-smuggling affair keeps unravelling; hostile submarines patrol the Swedish coastline seemingly at will and always manage to clear out in the nick of time; a convicted spy escapes to the Soviet Union while on weekend leave from prison, under cover of a new name approved by the Swedish Government.

In view of the general panic which seems to have gripped Swedish political life since the assassination, it would be unfair to heap all the blame for failing to catch the murderer on the official police investigation alone. Undoubtedly it has been hampered by endless internal squabbles, as well as by incompetence on such a scale as to seem intentional at times: but the fact remains that from the moment the killer disappeared into the wintry darkness the Palme case became extraordinarily complex. Practically everything that is known is open to interpretation – particularly as regards the motive, since so many individuals and groups can be said to have had one. The ‘Mad Swede’ hypothesis sees the murderer as a disgruntled loner who bears a grudge against society general and against Olof Palme in particular.

During his lifetime Palme was not only the generally admired statesman and humanitarian but also the target for a visceral right-wing hatred – due in part to his personal appearance, urbanity and arrogance, in part to a perceived discrepancy between his upper-class background and his radical politics (cf. Tony Benn), and in part to persistent accusations and rumours that he was soft on the Russians, if not a KGB mole. But, critics have asked, would a lone madman susceptible to violent anti-Palme feelings carry out the murder with such apparent coolness and efficiency, much less refrain from boasting about it and eventually giving himself away? Whatever the answer, it has to remain qualified for the time being. After four months in custody, a 42-year-old derelict and petty criminal is finally – and, for some, surprisingly – to be charged with the murder. The trial is due to start in May, but serious doubts remain as to whether the evidence thus far mobilised against him – all of it circumstantial – is strong enough to secure a conviction. If the last three years have proved anything at all, it is that hope triumphs over experience with depressing consistency.

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