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Olof Palme

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Olof Palme

Olof Palme
26th Prime Minister of Sweden
In office
14 October 1969 – 8 October 1976
(6 years, 360 days)
Monarch Gustaf VI Adolf
Carl XVI Gustaf
Preceded by Tage Erlander
Succeeded by Thorbjörn Fälldin
In office
8 October 1982 – 28 February 1986
(3 years, 143 days)
Monarch Carl XVI Gustaf
Deputy Ingvar Carlsson
Preceded by Thorbjörn Fälldin
Succeeded by Ingvar Carlsson
Leader of the Opposition
In office
8 October 1976 – 8 October 1982
(6 years, 0 days)
Prime Minister Thorbjörn Fälldin
Ola Ullsten
Thorbjörn Fälldin
Preceded by Thorbjörn Fälldin
Succeeded by Ulf Adelsohn
Leader of the
Swedish Social Democratic Party
In office
14 October 1969 – 28 February 1986
(16 years, 137 days)
Preceded by Tage Erlander
Succeeded by Ingvar Carlsson
Personal details
Born Sven Olof Joachim Palme
(1927-01-30)30 January 1927
Stockholm, Sweden
Died 28 February 1986(1986-02-28) (aged 59)
Stockholm, Sweden
Political party Social Democratic Party
Spouse(s) Lisbet Palme
Children Joakim
Alma mater Stockholm University,
Kenyon College
Religion None[1]
Website Olof Palme International Center
Military service
Allegiance Sweden
Service/branch Swedish Army
Years of service 1945–1947
Reservist : 1947-1977
Rank Kapten (Captain)
Unit Svealand Artillery Regiment

Sven Olof Joachim Palme (Swedish:  ; 30 January 1927 – 28 February 1986) was a Swedish Social Democratic politician, statesman and prime minister. A longtime protégé of Prime Minister Tage Erlander, Palme led the Swedish Social Democratic Party SAP from 1969 until his assassination in 1986, and was a two-term Prime Minister of Sweden, heading a Privy Council Government from 1969 to 1976 and a cabinet government from 1982 until his death. Electoral defeats in 1976 and 1979 marked the end of Social Democratic hegemony in Swedish politics, which had seen 40 years of unbroken rule by the party. While leader of opposition, he parted domestic and international interests and served as special mediator of the United Nations in the Iran–Iraq War, but returned to power as Prime Minister after electoral victories in 1982 and 1985.

A pivotal, renowned, and polarizing figure domestically as well as in international politics since the 1960s, Palme was steadfast in his non-alignment policy towards the superpowers, juxtaposed to support of numerous third world liberation movements following the process of decolonization including, most controversially, economic and vocal support for a number of Third World governments which were guilty of gross violations of human rights. Most famously, he was the first Western Head of Government to visit Cuba after its revolution, giving a speech in Santiago praising contemporary Cuban and Cambodian revolutionaries.

Frequently a critic of US and Soviet foreign policy, he resorted to fierce and often polarizing criticism in pinpointing his resistance towards imperialist ambitions and authoritarian regimes, including those of Francisco Franco of Spain, António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal, Gustáv Husák of Czechoslovakia, B J Vorster and P W Botha of South Africa. His 1972 condemnation of the Hanoi bombings, notably comparing the tactic to the Treblinka extermination camp, resulted in a temporary freeze in Sweden–United States relations. Palme's steadfast opposition to apartheid, which he labeled "a particularly gruesome system", gave rise to theories of South African involvement in his death, which were further fueled when Eugene de Kock claimed South African security forces had orchestrated his death. His murder by an unapprehended assailant on a street in Stockholm on 28 February 1986 was the first of its kind in modern Swedish history, the first of a national leader since Gustav III, and had a great impact across Scandinavia.[2] Local convict and addict Christer Pettersson was convicted of the murder but was acquitted on appeal by the Svea Court of Appeal.


  • Early life 1
  • Political career 2
  • Policies 3
  • Assassination 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8

Early life

Palme was born into an upper-class, conservative Lutheran family in Östermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. His father, a businessman, was of Dutch ancestry, and his mother, Freiin von Knieriem, was of Baltic German origin and had arrived in Sweden as a refugee in 1915. Great-grandfather Alexander von Knieriem (1837 - 1904) was an attorney general of the Senate of Russian Empire, senator and member of the State Council of Imperial Russia.[3] Palme's father died when he was six years old. Despite his upper-class background, his political orientation came to be influenced by Social Democratic attitudes. His travels in the Third World, as well as the United States, where he saw deep economic inequality and racial segregation, helped to develop these views.

A sickly child, Olof Palme received his education from private tutors. Even as a child he gained knowledge of two foreign languages - German and English. He studied at the Sigtuna School of Liberal Arts, one of Sweden's few residential high schools, and passed the university entrance examination with high marks at the age of 17. He was drafted into the Army in January 1945 and did his compulsory military service at A 1 between 1945 and 1947, became in 1956 a reserve officer with the rank of Captain in the Artillery. After he was discharged from military service in March 1947, he enrolled at the University of Stockholm.[4]

On a scholarship, he studied at Kenyon College, Ohio 1947–1948, graduating with a B.A..[5] Inspired by radical debate in the student community, he wrote a critical essay on Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Palme wrote his senior honour thesis on the United Auto Workers union, led at the time by Walter Reuther. After graduation he traveled throughout the country and eventually ended up in Detroit, where his hero Reuther agreed to an interview which lasted several hours. In later years, Palme regularly remarked during his many subsequent American visits, that the United States had made him a socialist, a remark that often has caused confusion. Within the context of his American experience, it was not that Palme was repelled by what he found in America, but rather that he was inspired by it.[6]

After hitchhiking through the USA and Mexico, he returned to Sweden to study law at Stockholm University. In 1949 he became a member of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. During his time at university, Palme became involved in student politics, working with the Swedish National Union of Students. In 1951, he became a member of the social democratic student association in Stockholm, although it is asserted he did not attend their political meetings at the time. The following year he was elected President of the Swedish National Union of Students. As a student politician he concentrated on international affairs and traveled across Europe.[4]

Palme attributed his becoming a socialist to three major influences:

Political career

Palme in 1968
Palme at Norra Bantorget, May Day 1973
Palme in Mora, 1 August 1985

In 1953, Palme was recruited by the social democratic prime minister Tage Erlander to work in his secretariat. From 1955 he was a board member of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League and lectured at the Youth League College Bommersvik. He also was a member of the Worker's Educational Association.

In 1957 he was elected as an Member of Parliament (Swedish: riksdagsledamot)[7] represented Jönköping County in the directly-elected First Chamber (Första kammaren) of the Riksdag. In the early 1960s Palme became a member of the Agency for International Assistance (NIB) and was in charge of inquiries into assistance to the developing countries and educational aid. In 1963, he became a member of the Cabinet - as Minister without Portfolio in the Cabinet Office, and retained his duties as a close political adviser to Prime Minister Tage Erlander. In 1965, he became Minister of Transport and Communications. One issue of special interest to him was the further development of radio and television, while ensuring their independence from commercial interests.[4] In 1967 he became Minister of Education, and the following year, he was the target of strong criticism from left-wing students protesting against the government's plans for university reform. The protests culminated with the occupation of the Student Union Building in Stockholm; Palme came there and tried to comfort the students, urging them to use democratic methods for the pursuit of their cause.[8] When party leader Tage Erlander stepped down in 1969, Palme was elected as the new leader by the Social Democratic party congress and succeeded Erlander as Prime Minister.

His protégé and political ally, Bernt Carlsson, who was appointed UN Commissioner for Namibia in July 1987, was killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988 en route to the UN signing ceremony of the New York Accords the following day.

Palme was said to have had a profound impact on people's emotions; he was very popular among the left, but harshly detested by most liberals and conservatives.[9] This was due in part to his international activities, especially those directed against the US foreign policy, and in part to his aggressive and outspoken debating style.[10][11]


As leader of a new generation of Swedish Social Democrats, Olof Palme was often described as a "revolutionary reformist".[12][13] Domestically, his democratic socialist views, especially the drive to expand Labour Union influence over business ownership, engendered a great deal of hostility from the organized business community.

During the tenure of Olof Palme, several major reforms in the Swedish constitution were carried out, such as orchestrating a switch from bicameralism to unicameralism in 1969 and in 1975 replacing the 1809 Instrument of Government (at the time the oldest political constitution in the world after that of the United States) with a new one officially establishing parliamentary democracy rather than de jure monarchic autocracy, abolishing the Cabinet meetings chaired by the King and stripping the monarchy of all formal political powers.

His reforms on labour market included establishing a law which increased job security. In the Swedish 1973 general election, the Socialist-Communist and the Liberal-Conservative blocs got 175 places each in the Riksdag. The Palme cabinet continued to govern the country but several times they had to draw lots to decide on some issues, although most important issues were decided through concessional agreement.[14] Tax rates also rose from being fairly low even by European standards to the highest levels in the Western world.[15]

Under Olof Palme's permiership tenure, matters concerned with child care centers, social security, protection of the elderly, accident safety, and housing problems received special attention. Under Palme the public health system in Sweden became efficient, with the infant mortality rate standing at 12 per 1,000 live births.[16] An ambitious redistributive programme was carried out, with special help provided to the disabled, immigrants, the low paid, single-parent families, and the old.[17] The Swedish welfare state was significantly expanded[18] from a position already one of the most far-reaching in the world during his time in office.[19] As noted by Isabela Mares, during the first half of the Seventies “the level of benefits provided by every subsystem of the welfare state improved significantly.” Various policy changes increased the basic old-age pension replacement rate from 42% of the average wage in 1969 to 57%, while a health care reform carried out in 1974 integrated all health services and increased the minimum replacement rate from 64% to 90% of earnings. In 1974, supplementary unemployment assistance was established, providing benefits to those workers ineligible for existing benefits.[19] In 1971, eligibility for invalidity pensions was extended with greater opportunities for employees over the age of 60. In 1974, universal dental insurance was introduced, and former maternity benefits were replaced by a parental allowance. In 1974, housing allowances for families with children were raised and these allowances were extended to other low-income groups.[20] Childcare centres were also expanded under Palme, and separate taxation of husband and wife introduced.[21] Access to pensions for older workers in poor health was liberalised in 1970, and a disability pension was introduced for older unemployed workers in 1972.[22]

The Palme cabinet was also active in the field of education, introducing such reforms as a system of loans and benefits for students, regional universities, and preschool for all children.[21] Under a law of 1970, in the upper secondary school system “gymnasium,” “fackskola” and vocational “yrkesskola” were integrated to form one school with 3 sectors (arts and social science, technical and natural sciences, economic and commercial). In 1975, a law was passed that established free admission to universities.[20] A number of reforms were also carried out to enhance workers' rights. An employment protection Act of 1974 introduced rules regarding consultation with unions, notice periods, and grounds for dismissal, together with priority rules for dismissals and re-employment in case of redundancies.[23] That same year, work-environment improvement grants were introduced and made available to modernising firms “conditional upon the presence of union-appointed ‘safety stewards’ to review the introduction of new technology with regard to the health and safety of workers.”[24] In 1976, an Act on co-determination at work was introduced that allowed unions to be consulted at various levels within companies before major changes were enforced that would affect employees, while management had to negotiate with labour for joint rights in all matters concerning organisation of work, hiring and firing, and key decisions affecting the workplace.[25]

Olof Palme's last government, elected during a time when Sweden's economy was in difficult shape, sought to pursue a "third way," designed to stimulate investment, production, and employment, having ruled out classical Keynesian policies as a result of the growing burden of foreign debt, together with the big balance of payments and budget deficits. This involved "equality of sacrifice," whereby wage restraint would be accompanied by increases in welfare provision and more progressive taxation. For instance, taxes on wealth, gifts, and inheritance were increased, while tax benefits to shareholders were either reduced or eliminated. In addition, various welfare cuts carried out before Olof's return to office were rescinded. The previous system of indexing pensions and other benefits was restored, the grant-in-aid scheme for municipal child care facilities was re-established, unemployment insurance was restored in full, and the so-called “no benefit days” for those drawing sickness benefits were cancelled. Increases were also made to both food subsidies and child allowances, while the employee investment funds (which represented a radical form of profit-sharing) were introduced.[17]

An outspoken supporter of gender equality, Palme sparked interest for women's' rights issues by attending a World Women's Conference in Mexico. In 1968 Palme was a driving force behind the release of documentary Dom kallar oss mods. The controversial movie, depicting two social outcasts, was scheduled to be released in an edited form but Palme thought the material was too socially important to be cut.[26]

As a forerunner in green politics Olof Palme was a firm believer in nuclear power as a necessary form of energy, at least for a transitional period to curb the influence of fossil fuel.[27] His intervention in Sweden's 1980 referendum on the future of nuclear power is often pinpointed by opponents of nuclear power as saving it. As of 2011, nuclear power remains one of the most important sources of energy in Sweden, much attributed to Palme's actions.

Shortly before his assassination, Palme had been accused of being pro-Soviet and not sufficiently safeguarding Sweden's national interest. Arrangements had therefore been made for him to go to Moscow to discuss a number of contentious bilateral issues, including alleged Soviet submarine incursions into Swedish waters (see U 137).

Olof Palme marching against the Vietnam War side by side with North Vietnam ambassador in February 1968 in Stockholm.

On the international scene, Palme was a widely recognised political figure because of his:

  • harsh and emotional criticism of the United States over the Vietnam War;
  • vocal opposition to the crushing of the Prague Spring by the Soviet Union;
  • criticism of European Communist regimes, including labeling the Husák regime as "The Cattle of Dictatorship" (Swedish: "Diktaturens kreatur") in 1975;
  • campaigning against nuclear weapons proliferation;
  • criticism of the Franco Regime in Spain, calling the regime "The Devil's Murderers" (Swedish: "Satans mördare") after its execution of ETA and FRAP nationalists in September 1975;
  • opposition to apartheid, branding it as "a particularly gruesome system", and support for economic sanctions against South Africa;
  • support, both political and financial, for the POLISARIO Front;
  • visiting Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1975, during which he denounced Fulgencio Batista's government and praised contemporary Cuban and Cambodian revolutionaries;
  • strong criticism of the Pinochet regime in Chile;
  • support, both political and financial, for the FMLN-FDR in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua; and,
  • role as a mediator in the Iran-Iraq War.

All of this ensured that Palme had many opponents (as well as many friends) abroad.[28]

On 21 February 1968, Palme (then Minister of Education) participated in a protest in Stockholm against U.S. involvement in the Swedish Committee for Vietnam and Palme and Nguyen were both invited as speakers. As a result of this, the U.S. recalled its Ambassador from Sweden and Palme was fiercely criticised by the opposition for his participation in the protest.[29]

On 23 December 1972, Palme (then Prime Minister) made a speech in Swedish national radio where he compared the ongoing U.S. bombings of Hanoi to historical atrocities, namely the bombing of Guernica, the massacres of Oradour-sur-Glane, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice and Sharpeville, and the extermination of Jews and other groups at Treblinka. The US government called the comparison a "gross insult" and once again decided to freeze its diplomatic relations with Sweden (this time the freeze lasted for over a year).[29][30]

Despite such associations and contrary to stated Social Democratic Party policy, Sweden had in fact secretly maintained extensive military co-operation with NATO over a long period, and was even under the protection of a US military security guarantee (see Swedish neutrality during the Cold War).

In response to Palme's remarks in a meeting with the US ambassador to Sweden ahead of the Socialist International Meeting in Helsingør in January 1976,[31] Kissinger asked the US ambassador to "(...) convey my personal appreciation to Palme for his frank presentation (...).[32]


People mourning Palme where he was assassinated in Stockholm 1986

Security had never been a major issue, and Olof Palme could often be seen without any bodyguard protection. The night of his murder was one such occasion. Walking home from a cinema with his wife Lisbet Palme in the central Stockholm street Sveavägen, close to midnight on 28 February 1986, the couple was attacked by an assassin. Palme was fatally shot in the back at close range. A second shot was fired at Lisbet Palme, the bullet grazing her back. She survived without serious injuries.

Police said that a taxi driver used his radio to raise the alarm. Two young girls sitting in a car close to the scene of the shooting also tried to help the prime minister. He was rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival at 00:06 CET the next day. Deputy Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson immediately assumed the duties of Prime Minister, a post he retained until 1991 (and then again in 1994-1996). He also took over the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, which he held until 1996.

Two years later, Christer Pettersson (d. 2004), a small-time criminal and drug addict, was arrested, tried and convicted for Palme's murder. Pettersson's conviction was later overturned on appeal to the Svea Court of Appeal. The crime remains unsolved and alternative theories as to who carried out the murder have since been proposed.

In January 2011 the German magazine Focus cited German interrogation records in connection with another investigation from 2008 as showing that the assassination had been carried out by an operative of the Yugoslavian UDBA who now lives in Zagreb, Croatia.[33][34]

See also

Olof Palme's grave at Adolf Fredrik cemetery in central Stockholm.


  1. ^ Jens Moe (2011). My America: The Culture of Giving. iUniverse. p. 155.  
  2. ^ Nordstrom, Byron (2000). Scandinavia Since 1500. University of Minnesota Press, pg. 347. "The February 1986 murder of Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme near Sergelstorget in the middle of Stockholm's downtown shocked the nation and region. Political assassinations were virtually unheard-of in Scandinavia."
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^ Kenyon College Web page
  6. ^ Hendrik Hertzberg, “Death of a Patriot”, in: Idem, Politics. Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004) 263-266, there 264
  7. ^ Elected as an MP
  8. ^ Olof Palme - En levande vilja: Tal och intervjuer
  9. ^ Einhorn, Eric and John Logue (1989). Modern Welfare States: Politics and Policies in Social Democratic Scandinavia. Praeger Publishers, pg 60. ISBN 0-275-93188-9 "Olof Palme was perhaps the most 'presidential' Scandinavian leader in recent decades, a fact that may have made him vulnerable to political violence."
  10. ^ "Han gödslade jorden så att Palmehatet kunde växa", Dagens Nyheter, 25 February 2006
  11. ^ Olof Palme: the controversy lives on, The Local, 27 February 2006
  12. ^ Dagens Nyheter 23 January 2007
  13. ^ "Detta borde vara vårt arv" by Åsa Linderborg, Aftonbladet 28 February 2006
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b Socialists in the Recession: The Search for Solidarity by Giles Radice and Lisanne Radice
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b Taxation, Wage Bargaining and Unemployment by Isabela Mares
  20. ^ a b Growth to Limits: The Western European Welfare States Since World War II Volume 4 edited by Peter Flora
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Daniel Ekeroth: SWEDISH SENSATIONSFILMS: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema, (Bazillion Points, 2011) ISBN 978-0-9796163-6-5.
  27. ^ Olof Palme till Shirley Maclaine om vikten av kärnkraft on YouTube
  28. ^ Holst, Karen. "'"Palme's political legacy 'put Sweden on the map. The Local. The Local Europe AB. Retrieved 23 March 2011. 
  29. ^ a b Andersson, Stellan. "Olof Palme och Vietnamfrågan 1965-1983" (in Swedish). Retrieved 27 February 2008. 
  30. ^ The speech on YouTube
  31. ^ "Discussion with Prime Minister Palme of Socialist Meeting in Denmark - January 18–19".  
  32. ^ "Palme's views on socialist international meeting".  
  33. ^ Hufelschulte, Josef (16 January 2011). "Heiße Spur im Mordfall Palme" (in Deutsch).  
  34. ^ Despot, Zvonimir (16 January 2011). "Udbini prsti: Ubojica švedskog premijera '86. još živi u Zagrebu" (in Hrvatski).  


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  • Palme, Claës (1986), Olof Palme, Helsinki: Kirjayhtymä,  
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External links

  • Olof Palme Archives
  • Olof Palme Memorial Fund
  • Olof Palme International Center
Political offices
Preceded by
Gösta Skoglund
Minister for Communications
Succeeded by
Svante Lundkvist
Preceded by
Ragnar Edenman
Minister for Education
Succeeded by
Ingvar Carlsson
Preceded by
Tage Erlander
Prime Minister of Sweden
Succeeded by
Thorbjörn Fälldin
Leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party
Succeeded by
Ingvar Carlsson
Preceded by
Thorbjörn Fälldin
Prime Minister of Sweden
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