Who killed Olof Palme?

Bernard Porter and Kajsa Ohrlander

Well, that was a disappointment. For the last couple of weeks, Swedes have been waiting for the results of a new police inquiry into the assassination of Olof Palme in a side street in Stockholm 34 years ago. Even by the standards of political assassinations, Palme’s murder has been more puzzling than most, and more controversial.

The controversy has been fuelled by his outspoken stances on the Vietnam War, South African apartheid and political brutality generally. He was also a democratic socialist, on roughly the same point on the scale as Jeremy Corbyn. This lay at the root of his enormous popularity in Sweden, and of his government’s considerable social achievements, including legislation on abortion rights, workers’ rights, universal daycare and gender equality. It also however provoked extreme hostility towards him in Sweden from the usual right-wing suspects, to add to his international enemies; some of it expressly anti-semitic (he wasn’t Jewish, but some of the haters thought he was). Since the murder, ‘conspiracy theorists’ – using that term in its broadest sense, to describe anyone who believes that forces behind the scenes can affect politics – have had a field day. The results of the new inquiry, released today, should have brought closure.

They won’t have done. The virtual press conference, streamed live on Swedish TV this morning, conceded that the original police investigation had been flawed. (It isn’t the only one.) Of course the police had a difficult time of it; they apparently interviewed 90,000 people, 134 of whom had confessed to the murder. They narrowed these down to a more manageable number of suspects, including a Kurdish exile group, before finally alighting on a petty criminal called Christer Pettersson, mainly on the strength of an identification by Palme’s widow, Lisbet. Pettersson was convicted but later exonerated and released from prison. He died in 2004.

Today’s report replaces him in the frame with a man called Stig Engström, but not conclusively. Engström had been one of the popular suspects all along, known as ‘Skandia Man’ because he worked for Skandia Insurance, just around the corner from the crime scene. He was on the spot at the time, and afterwards clearly enjoyed his celebrity as a ‘witness’, spreading stories about the murder that turned out to be obvious lies. The evidence against him was all circumstantial: his membership of a shooting club, his alleged hatred of Palme. The police tried to connect the murder weapon with him forensically, but couldn’t. The leader of the inquiry said they reckoned they had enough to commit him for trial, but not to prove his guilt. That could only be done in court but, since Engström had committed suicide in 2000, it was no longer an option. So they’ve closed the book on him, and on the whole affair.

The explanation didn’t entirely satisfy the journalists at the press conference; only one of them, however, raised the question of Engström’s possible motive, and possible links with – for example – South African intelligence services or the CIA. If the police did follow these lines of inquiry, they’re not saying where they led. Indeed, the impression given at the press conference was that the new inquiry only went over the old ground. The report itself and its evidence will not be published in full, on grounds of ‘confidentiality’.

Sweden at the time of the murder was not geared up for this kind of thing. It’s a remarkable fact that Palme and Lisbet were out walking on their own, heading home from a public cinema to their small flat, without the sort of protection afforded to political leaders in every other part of the world. It’s different now. That’s a shame.

So, of course, is the loss of a European leader who meant so much for progressive forces worldwide. Why is it so often the goodies who get gunned down? Maybe a deeper inquiry into the context and motivation behind Palme’s death could have suggested an answer to that.


  • 11 June 2020 at 2:23pm
    Colin Webster says:
    Maybe because the baddies always seem to see themselves as victims, for various post hoc reasons, which they blame their victim as the perpetrator of their misfortune. 'Progressives' who might be termed 'goodies' are more likely to be motivated by empathy for their fellow beings whereas baddies are more willing or able to kill. Beyond this personal tradgedy, the inquiry needed to discover and present evidence of a political assassination and conspiracy. We are therefore none the wiser about the capacity of the extreme right to thwart reform through political murder.

  • 11 June 2020 at 7:21pm
    Gunnar says:
    "Indeed, the impression given at the press conference was that the new inquiry only went over the old ground. The report itself and its evidence will not be published in full, on grounds of ‘confidentiality’."

    Because the Palme investigation is now being formally closed, the "pre-trial investigative documentation" they have amassed over the years – 250 metres of it in shelf-space – has to be made public by law, within a certain time frame. The only exceptions are materials pertaining to national security and Sweden's relations with a foreign power. Should you want to see it all, it will cost you 1 million krona (about £85,000) according to the official price list.

  • 16 June 2020 at 7:30pm
    sterilepromontory says:
    In May 1970, Palme delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. His alma mater and mine. I was in the audience but my mind was on a young girl, now 68. I felt a slight personal shock when he was murdered. We were within six degrees of separation.