Show Hide image

Who killed Olof Palme?

For 30 years, the unsolved murder of the prime minister has haunted Sweden. Yet the identification of a culprit has offered little comfort

In recent months, Sweden has been waiting to hear the final answer to an old question: who shot the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, as he left the cinema with his wife in Stockholm late one winter night in 1986, leaving no gun, no DNA evidence and no footprints?

The crime, and the hunt for both killer and motive, has taken up thousands of hours of police time, produced the largest active murder investigation archive in the world, fuelled countless armchair conspiracy theories, and gnawed at Sweden’s national consciousness for over three decades.

But this year, the new chief investigator into the case, Krister Petersson, promised Swedes they would at last get their answer. “I am positive that I will present what happened with the murder, and who is responsible for it,” he told SVT, the Swedish national broadcaster, in February.

There were plenty of people who could have wanted Palme dead. The charismatic leader of Sweden’s left-wing Social Democrats, a party that had, aside from a spell in opposition in the 1970s, been in power since the 1930s, he was a politician with many devotees, but also a great many enemies both in and outside of Sweden. Serving as PM twice, first between 1969 and 1976, and then between 1982 and his death, Palme opposed the Vietnam War as well as apartheid in South Africa. He also enraged the political right with his speeches against economic inequality.

And yet, he considered himself safe enough to walk the streets without bodyguards on the night he was killed. He was fatally mistaken: 28 February 1986 has been described by many in Sweden as the moment the country lost its innocence.

At 9:30am on 10 June 2020, Swedes gathered in front of their televisions to watch the live press conference in which the assassin’s identity would be revealed. Would it be the previously convicted killer Christer Pettersson (no relation to Krister Petersson), the only person to stand trial for the murder but who was acquitted in 1990? Was the killing an inside job, carried out by right-wing extremists in the Swedish police? Perhaps the theory that South Africa’s security services had killed Palme was right after all. The South African government handed over a dossier to Swedish investigators in March 2020, and the crime writer Stieg Larsson had been pursuing the South African connection when he died in 2004.

The answer investigators gave, as they sat in a shabby grey conference room in Stockholm, was none of these. Instead, their “best” suspect was a man called Stig Engström, an unassuming graphic designer who died in 2000. He was better known as “the Skandia man” because he worked for the insurance giant, which had offices next to the spot where Palme was shot. The investigators said they did not have enough evidence to convict him in court, were he alive, but they believed that they had enough to close the case for good.

Their conclusions weren’t wholly unexpected; a few years beforehand, several journalists had identified the Skandia man as a possible culprit. Engström was known to the original investigators as a witness to the crime, although they dismissed him as a mere nuisance after he kept changing his story. But the evidence on which the prosecutors are now closing the case is a huge disappointment to many in Sweden. Upon the announcement, Facebook groups run by aficionados of the Palme murder, who are numerous and fierce, lit up with indignation. “This is the biggest scandal in Swedish criminal history,” one person wrote.

It was widely believed that new technical evidence would be presented. Investigators had been hinting at this for months beforehand, and Aftonbladet, a Swedish newspaper, was informed a few days before the announcement that the murder weapon had been discovered. But the investigators Hans Melander and Krister Petersson confirmed that no new evidence had informed their findings. Mårten Palme, Olof’s son, told SVT that he found the Engström conclusion “really strange”, and confessed that he too had been expecting fresh evidence linking the bullets to a gun, and a gun to the killer.

The case against Engström is strong, and the investigators presented it in painstaking detail. He seems to have had weapons training, and can be placed at the scene at the precise moment Palme was shot in the back. Some of his movements that night match descriptions other witnesses made of the killer’s movements. He had access to a gun, through a friend with a weapons collection, and his story was inconsistent over the weeks and months after the murder. He also “moved in Palme-critical circles” as the investigators put it, although that’s not saying much at a time when half the nation loved Palme, and half loathed him.

But the weaknesses of the case against Engström are damning. Everything that was presented was based on re-examination of original witness testimonies, which were poorly conducted by the first investigator, a bumbling detective named Hans Holmér, whose fixation on various dead-end leads in the earliest days of the case did irreparable damage to future efforts to solve it. Two crucial pieces of evidence remain missing: the murder weapon itself, and a motive.

As far as the Swedish police are concerned, the case is closed. But the court of public opinion has delivered a different verdict. There are people for whom Engström does not fit the profile of an assassin, and there are those who simply expected a lot more in the way of revelations from the announcement. I asked Dan Hörning, whose podcast about the case, Palmemordet, runs to over 200 episodes, how he felt about it. “I feel nothing” he said, “because there was very little I did not already know for me to feel anything about.”

Leif GW Persson, the crime author and criminologist who often gets wheeled out in the Swedish press to talk about the murder, has also been blunt in his assessment. “It was a huge disappointment”, he told Sweden’s TV4. “I’m far from convinced.” He is not alone; the general response from experts on the case is that conspiracy theories about Palme’s murder will continue to be written. Hans Melander, head of the investigation, acknowledged this himself in the conference: “I am totally convinced that there are other people who believe in other solutions, but as Krister [Petersson] says, this is what we came up with and believe in.” In a survey conducted for Aftonbladet shortly after the announcement, more than three-quarters of the 217,000 respondents said that they did not consider the matter closed.

****

It seems absurd to be so agitated about a 34-year-old murder in these exhaustingly news-heavy times. But it would be difficult to overstate how large this unsolved crime looms in the Swedish national psyche – it is more than just an intriguing historical whodunnit. It’s a dark hole in Sweden’s understanding of itself.

The implications of South African security services having assassinated a prime minister are very different from the implications of a lonely alcoholic happening upon him in the street while carrying a gun. They are different still if right-wing extremism had flourished enough within the police force for it to have produced an assassin. Palme came to stand for the idea of modern Sweden itself, too. He was its first political celebrity, a man of intense charisma and outspoken opinions on the world stage: against the Vietnam War, against apartheid, in favour of a robust welfare state.

The problem has always been that, because of the lack of technical evidence and the killer’s astonishingly clean getaway, you can superimpose whatever story you like onto the murder. If you like the idea of a police inside job, that can be argued. If you like the idea of a drunk madman, you can build that case too. Who killed Olof Palme is still in the eye of the beholder.

The anticlimax of the announcement could not have come at a worse time for Sweden. The failings of its government and scientific authorities are weighing heavily on the minds of its citizens. The state’s response to Covid-19 – to disregard the tactics employed by most of the world and refuse to impose a lockdown – has been condemned in the press, as fatalities from the virus soar (the death toll at the time of writing was 4,814). Sweden’s death rate per capita was reportedly the highest in the world over the seven days to 2 June.

The epidemiologist in charge of the coronavirus response, Anders Tegnell, was forced to admit on 3 June that things should have been done differently, and that too many Swedes had died. I spoke to a friend in Stockholm after the Palme press conference about how these events link together. “Weak leadership has been a running theme this year,” he said. “We are just tired of all the uncertainty.”

Palme’s death, and the failure to solve it, exposed misperceptions about Sweden, a country once synonymous with social democratic utopia, but which has been less perfect than it appears. That moment of lost innocence has never passed. The national tendency towards naivety was evident in the shocked response to the far right’s surge in the 2018 elections, and is arguably on show now in people’s willingness to trust the state’s deeply flawed Covid-19 strategy.

It seems more unlikely than ever that the Palme case will be resolved in the popular imagination. As the years pass, more people who witnessed the crime are dying. Olof Palme’s wife Lisbet, who was with him when he was shot, died in 2018. The prime minister Stefan Lövfen has said that a conviction would have been the best outcome, but he does not question the findings of the investigation. Lövfen has described this national trauma as an “open wound”, and in his address to the nation on 10 June said that he hoped that now, the wound might heal. It seems too optimistic to hope for. Perhaps, too, there are those, among the thousands of people who nurse an obsession with this murder case, who don’t want the wound to heal; those who enjoy endlessly picking at the scab. 

This article appears in the 19 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars