One Winter’s Night
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 12 · 22 June 1989
In the May 18 issue of the London Review of Books I find an article by Mr Gunnar Pettersson on Ruth Freeman’s Death of a Statesman. I have not read Mrs Freeman’s book but apparently she claims to have discovered the solution to the murder of Olof Palme. Mr Pettersson states that if Olof Palme was murdered on behalf of a foreign power the solution must be found in the Middle East: ‘Palme’s role as UN peace negotiator in the Gulf War, together with recent evidence of his having acted simultaneously and covertly on behalf of Swedish arms exporters, presents a likely political backdrop to his assassination.’ ‘Simultaneously’ and ‘covertly’ and ‘recent evidence’! The fact is that no ‘evidence’ whatsoever has ever been presented to substantiate gossip and allegations on the subject that pass from one speculative book or article to another.
Mr Palme, as UN mediator, visited both Baghdad and Tehran on several occasions between 1980 and 1982. During his meetings with officials in these capitals he was never alone with his interlocutors for one moment. He was surrounded by staff from the UN Secretariat in New York who took notes from the discussions. If these notes could be published it would become obvious that he did not discuss bilateral questions involving Sweden. He only discussed issues related to the ongoing war. In particular, arms sales were not mentioned.
I knew Olof Palme for more than twenty years and worked closely with him as speechwriter and adviser, as secretary of the Palme Commission, as UN Ambassador. Whatever you can say about him, he was not an arms trader and certainly not someone who engaged in covert arms dealings. It is surely time that the burden of proof be put on the accusers rather than on a man who is dead and cannot defend himself.
Swedish Ambassador, Copenhagen
Vol. 11 No. 14 · 27 July 1989
In his letter (Letters, 22 June) about my recent review of a book on the Olof Palme murder, Anders Ferm reveals an inattentiveness to detail which is surprising in an experienced diplomat. First, I did not say that if Palme was murdered on behalf of a foreign power, the solution ‘must’ be found in the Middle East. I said – with deliberate caution – that ‘it would seem at least possible,’ and I further qualified my caution with certain reservations about such a likelihood. Then, Ambassador Ferm claims that there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ for my assertion that Olof Palme ‘acted simultaneously and covertly on behalf of Swedish arms exporters’. Evidence there certainly is, but again I think Mr Ferm has simply misread the sentence he quotes from. It does not say that Palme was an ‘arms trader’, nor does it imply he was engaged in illegal arms dealings, for which unlikely supposition there is indeed no evidence whatsoever. The fact that Olof Palme acted ‘covertly’ is, as Mr Ferm is no doubt aware, in the nature of such negotiations.
The best-known evidence for what I did write is contained in a report by the Constitutional Committee of the Swedish Parliament (KU 1987/88:40) dealing with the 1985-1986 Bofors bid for the supply of howitzers to India which has subsequently become the subject of a major scandal in that country. It is well documented in that report that Palme was very active indeed in his support for the bid, most importantly in his meetings with Rajiv Gandhi, the last of which was held in Delhi on January 1986. As it happens, Mr Ferm’s former colleague in the Palme Commission, John Edwards, confirmed in a recent TV documentary that Olof Palme was at that time ‘negotiating peace in the morning and selling arms in the afternoon’, as it was described. It surely cannot come as news to Mr Ferm that Olof Palme, generally speaking, had a robustly ‘hands-on’ approach to the promotion of the Swedish defence industry in the world market. Internationally, he used his considerable influence and authority on its behalf, as has been gratefully acknowledged by Martin Ardbo and several others implicated in the Bofors affair. Domestically, Palme – strongly opposed by the Foreign Trade Minister – urged the relaxation of the strict government ‘guidelines’ on arms exports to countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, at a time when it was, to say the least, debatable whether they fulfilled the requirement of not ‘being engaged in armed conflict’ or ‘suppressing human rights’. However, the fact that he seems to have had no difficulty in reconciling the promotion of arms sales with the promotion of world peace is now only of historical interest. What is of more immediate concern is that we should have as complete and unsentimental a picture of him as possible in order to comprehend fully the circumstances surrounding his untimely death.