Sweden: the assasination of Olof Palme and the investigation that buried the truth

It has been 34 years since the assassination of Sweden’s prime minister, the social democratic leader Olof Palme, one of the most noteworthy political figures in the history of the country. Gunned down after a visit to a movie theatre without his body-guards, the circumstances around his murder have been mysterious and the investigation mired by scandals. Many had therefore hoped for a solid conclusion to this long-overdue investigation. But all we got was the closing down of the investigation, in a transparent attempt to bury this embarrassing affair once and for all. Thus, this national tragedy yet again ended in farce.

The presentation by chief prosecutor Krister Petersson at the press conference last Wednesday was a damning indictment of the Swedish police and judicial system. We rarely see such a complete breakdown in a murder investigation. Through an unthinkable amount of mistakes, sidesteps and bad decisions they have neglected the investigation and any chance to find out the truth. The chief political commentator of Aftonbladet said that the police behaved like “blathering idiots in the country’s by far most important crime investigation”.

The Palme investigation did not, as many had hoped, present any new forensic evidence. They have found neither a murder weapon or any hits from DNA samples. Nor did they produce any new confession or any new naming of names. According to Petersson, it is impossible to now make any more progress with the forensic evidence.

According to Petersson, this means that it is necessary to base a conclusion on the “available material”, which is what they have been busy doing since he took charge in February 2017. In practice, they have not presented anything more than what the journalist Thomas Pettersson did in his much-written-about article in the magazine Filter in 2018, where the “Skandia man” Stig Engström was pointed out as a possible suspect.

What the investigation has now presented would not be enough to convict or even press charges against Engström in a court of law, and is only enough for “reasonable suspicion”. But Engström has been dead for 20 years. The material presented should have been acted upon 34 years ago, when they could have proceeded to apprehend Engström, question him, search his house and other investigative measures. Thus, we are now facing a fait accompli: the criminal investigation can apparently not proceed.

While the police made every effort to chase down, without any proof, the innocent Kurdish freedom fighters of the PKK in Sweden, and later at any cost tried to get the unlikely Christer Pettersson convicted, they managed to make a mess of every single thing that was central to the investigation. Without any further leads, they are therefore now closing down the investigation, and the reason given is that the main suspect is dead. But they have not been able to determine conclusively the decisive question: who killed Olof Palme?

Palme and Engström

Olof murder scene Image I99pemaThe building where Engström worked and Palme was shot / Image: I99pema

The chief prosecutor pointed out that the memorandum that wrote off Engström from the investigation was “astounding”, and a number of circumstances around his person and what he says in witness interrogations are noteworthy, to say the least. It is abundantly clear that the police should have taken a much greater interest in him, but on the contrary were eager to write him off.

Stig Engström was in many respects an ordinary man from the Stockholm petty-bourgeoisie. He worked as a graphic artist for the insurance company Skandia and dedicated time to working for the Swedish conservatives in the local politics in the Täby municipality. The Skandia building was close to the murder site, and he appeared at an early stage in the investigation both as a witness and a suspect. In fact, he seems to have actively tried to position himself in the media spotlight, and had a certain need to be close to the centre of attention.

With his military background and familiarity with the social codes of the upper class from his time in boarding school, Engström moved freely during the 1980s in elite circles in Stockholm, and also amongst those who were openly hostile to Palme – circles that were often one and the same. He frequented dinners honored by the participation of diplomats, colonels and business leaders. In his spare time, he sometimes handed out flyers spewing hate against Olof Palme and wore pins with Palme caricatures.

The extreme right-wing hated Palme for the same reasons that he was popular within the working class. Under the pressure from an increasingly radicalised labour movement, the Social Democrats carried through rapid and major improvements for the working class in the 1970s. Palme gained a certain international recognition, in a way few other Swedish leaders could boast: from his criticism of some of the more conspicuous crimes of imperialism, including the christmas bombings of Hanoi; the Franco dictatorship; Pinochet; and Apartheid. The heritage of Palme has been an important part of the Swedish self-perception as a former “humanitarian superpower”, and as having a progressive and independent stance in foreign policy. At the same time, there was never any doubt that Sweden, when it really came down to it, was on the side of US imperialism in world politics and maintained close ties to the US and their allied Nato countries.

There exists a certain mythology around Palme within some parts of the left. But it is important to understand that his position was one of defence of capitalism and Swedish class collaboration. He was a convinced anti-communist and a champion in the fight against the left-wing of the Labour movement, including both Stalinists and Trotskyists. Palme had decided for the US already during the Cold War. At the same time, he was skilled at understanding the moods developing from below and made radical statements in order that the 1968 movement would not simply pass his party by. In this way, he attempted to steer the left-wing turn into the safe channels of the Social Democrats.

In 1973, the journalists Jan Guillou and Peter Bratt revealed in the magazine FiB/Kulturfront that state intelligence had illegally surveilled Swedish communists and left-wing activists, among other things, in collaboration with the Social Democratic network of informers in workplaces. The “IB affair”, as it was subsequently known, was the biggest scandal in Olof Palme’s political life, and a hard blow for the party.

After the Social Democratic victory in the 1982 elections, there was no longer any talk about improvements. To fully assess the legacy of Olof Palme, one has to also include his leadership of the Social Democratic party during its right-wing turn, in collaboration with finance minister Kjell Olof-Feldt and the right-wing “kanslihushögern” faction of the party. This was the early prelude to today’s right-wing policies. One of the first things that the new Palme government did in 1982 was to devalue the Swedish krona, which was a potent stimulus for the large export companies, and a wage cut for ordinary workers. Three months before his death, the Social Democrats carried out the infamous deregulation of the capital and currency market.

It was this combination of left-wing rhetoric and defence of capitalism that allowed Palme to first criticise US imperialism, and then lie through his teeth about the illegal surveillance of trade unionists and peace activists by the state IB. It was his deep inconsistency that made Palme into such an efficient defender of Swedish class collaboration – dubbed the “Saltsjöbadsandan” – and thereby inevitably also of the capitalist system.

To many, Palme has become something of a symbol for everything good about the Swedish welfare state. But the right-wing extremist circles of the time were engaged in a completely different kind of mythology. There was a flourishing of various conspiracy theories about an imminent invasion of Sweden by the Soviet Union, where Palme would be an agent for the “Communist” enemy. The Conservative youth in Täby, where Stig Engström had been active, was throwing darts at a portrait of Palme, and one marine officer said openly that Palme was controlled from Moscow by telepathy.

In right-wing circles, Palme had become a horrifying character. Often both sharp and harsh in debates, he alone became the personification of the struggle of the popular majority to have a bigger say in the running of society. The right-wing had the militant struggles of the 1970s fresh in their memory, a struggle they felt had almost gotten out of hand with the demands for wage-earner funds and democracy in the workplace, women’s liberation and not least the growth of the revolutionary left. Since the 1970s, it had been clear to the ruling class and the right-wing that it was necessary to go on a counter-offensive.

A bigger conspiracy

Olof Palme newspaper Image public domainIs it possible that groups within the Swedish military or Security Services were involved in the assasination of Olof Palme? / Image: public domain

It is hardly far-fetched to assume that it was an individual or group from these circles who were responsible for the deadly shots against Olof Palme after that ill-fated visit to the Grand cinema on 28 February 1986.

As Thomas Pettersson explained in his highly interesting article in Filter, during the Cold War the US had a Stay Behind network, with branches in all European countries. Its purpose was to act behind enemy lines, should the Soviet Union invade. In archives of Olle Alsén, the former editor of the respected liberal daily Dagens Nyheter, Pettersson found an interview with “a former CIA agent and a former IB employee” that “pointed to the fact that the murder could be an action by Stay Behind, sanctioned at a high level”. Stay Behind had direct ties to Skandia and the Skandia building, whose underground culverts were being used as a base for its activities.

For a long time, the Swedish ruling class has had to hide the fascist sympathies that they could air openly the last time during the Second World War. It is no secret that the pro-Nazi sympathies extended far into the highest circles of the Swedish military and security services, who looked enviously and dreamingly at how Hitlerism had settled accounts with the Labour movement.

Is it possible that groups within the Swedish military or Security Services in reality were involved in the assasination of Olof Palme? Did reactionary individuals within the police at the very least participate in botching the criminal investigation? How seriously did the police take its task, given that the officer in charge at the Norrmalm’s police precinct exclaimed “now that swine Palme is dead”? Remember, it’s been reported that police officers after the murder were toasting with champagne (Palme commission, SOU 1999:88, p. 294) The state Palme commission stated that: “It appears as if there existed in this part of the police a culture of violence, right-wing extremism and distrust of the possibility to solve problems in society with ordinary democratic means.”

It is hardly far-fetched to believe that individuals or groups from this rotten milieu have been far more mixed up in all this than we have been able to prove so far. In 2010, documents were made public that showed that there existed right-wing extremist police officers, with ties to the infamous “Baseball-gang” within the Stockholm police, who claimed they knew who had murdered Olof Palme. But the [wildly popular and well-renowned] criminologist Leif GW Persson was surely correct when he pointed out that one has to “set the sights higher. It could be officers from the Security Services, or individuals from the military”.

Unfortunately, the entire idea of police involvement was laconically dismissed by chief investigator Hans Melander during the press conference, who said they had found “nothing concrete”. A skeptical-minded individual would point out that this would hardly be the first time that police have protected each other. Why have they never acted on the recommendation by the state commission in 1999 to investigate the ties to right-wing extremism within the Swedish police?

Thomas Pettersson writes in Filter that:

“[The] former chief of Swedish Security Services counter-espionage Olof Frånstedt … [had revealed] two independent groups that could have something to do with the murder. One group, Grupp Barbro, was led by Barbro Sagnell, a former employee of the National Defence Radio Establishment and active at a high-level within the FRO, a volunteer radio organisation within the military. Grupp Barbro was dominated by FRO members, and its activities largely revolved around keeping an eye on different suspect activities at the streets of Stockholm. The other group, Grupp Lennart, was and is less well-known. Its leader was a businessman with good connections to the arms manufacturer Bofors. Its activities were less clear, and Olof Frånstedt did not provide that much information.

“What both groups had in common was that they were sanctioned by the Defence Staff. In his memoirs, Olof Frånstedt explained that Claes Wikland, the then operative chief of the IB, had visited him personally with the message that both groups were to be left alone.

“If Engström had belonged to any of these groups, many pieces would fall into place. First and foremost the motive, but also how he could get hold of a murder weapon. Besides, his involvement in a secret network would explain some of the peculiar turn of events that allowed him to slip away. Was he simply helped by government figures who stopped the investigation with reference to national security?” (Filter, Jun/Jul 2018)

The Palme group claims to have investigated the question of a conspiracy, with, among other things, the help of the Security Services. At the press conference, the chief prosecutor was of the opinion that a conspiracy was “unlikely”, but presented no real evidence to support this conclusion. The journalist Thomas Pettersson, for his part, stated that the killing was “stamped by chance and performed amateurishly”. But he was not prepared therefore to exclude the possibility that the killer had acted together with others.

Thus, we have no answer to whether or not Stig Engström, if he indeed was the one who held the gun, acted alone or in collaboration with others. Based on what we know, we cannot exclude that he was part of some kind of conspiracy, but we also can’t even be sure he was the person who fired the killing shot. The fact that we don’t know exactly what happened leaves the most fundamental issues unresolved.

One of the benefits of the fact that the investigation has been closed is that the investigation secrecy is lifted, and parts of the material will therefore become public. But the volume of material is enormous. It comprises 22,430 different “lines of inquiry”, 90,000 people, and interrogations with around 10,000 individuals aside from forensic evidence and other things. We can only hope that researchers in the future will find the threads that can help begin to unravel this Gordian knot.

Wilful negligence

One of the first actions of the Bolsheviks after the working class took power in 1917 was to reveal publically all the secret and dirty deals that the Tsarist regime had made with other imperialist powers. What would be revealed if researchers were allowed to look over the archives of the Swedish Secret Service?

The more one reads, the more one is struck by how much is strange about the investigation, and the astonishingly poor manner in which it has been conducted. As Sven Anér, author of the book Cover-up: Palmemordet says in the article by Pettersson:

“It doesn’t matter where I put my finger in this affair, I always end up in strangeness, absurd statements, odd claims, peculiar course of events, frightening inaction on behalf of the police and the prosecutors. Everything is strange, nothing is clear.” (Filter, Jun/Jul 2018)

800px Zweedse premier Olof Palme 2 Image Nationaal ArchiefThe police completely blew the investigation of the assassination of Olof Palme – at the time one of the most leading representatives of the Labour movement. This is not a mistake / Image: Nationaal Archief

The only thing that is clear is that nothing seems impossible in the farce known as the Palme investigation. The only thing we know for sure is that the police completely blew the investigation of the assassination of Olof Palme – at the time one of the most leading representatives of the Labour movement. This is in no way a mistake, but reveals the political character of the investigation. That it has now been closed without anyone being held to account for the murder – a crime with no statute of limitations and where many involved can be assumed to be still alive – reveals something that is fundamentally rotten in the Swedish state. In this way they are now trying to sweep this entire awkward affair under the rug. But they are unlikely to succeed.

Several witnesses has reported that they were met with an extremely poor, unprofessional and plain weird treatment by the murder investigators. The now-famous comedian Robert Gustafsson is one of the witnesses from the night of the murder, who was at the same movie screening as the Palme couple and at the Sveavägen after that, where he saw a large car with tinted windows and men talking in walkie-talkies on both sides of the road. In an article in Aftonbladet on 11 June, he explains that “we who were actually there and saw, heard, felt and experienced that dramatic and strange evening at and around Sveavägen were never taken seriously, and in some cases even neglected and threatened”.

Anna Hage, who was one of the main witnesses and first at the scene of the murder, published the book 30 Years of Silence (30 år av tystnad – mitt liv i skuggan av mordet på Olof Palme) two years ago, where she writes about how she barely got room to tell the police what she knew when she was interrogated. They were also not very interested in getting all the details right. She writes about strange interrogations with Security Services and dark cars that showed up outside of her home. At one point, two and a half years after the murder, she was contacted by a man who seemed to be part of some military intelligence network, and he suggested meeting her at her favourite cafe. He made clear that they had the capability to hurt her, that “some things should not come out” and warned her to talk with the “wrong people”. “We have to ensure that things are calm in the country” (read Gunnar Wall’s review.)

Aftonbladet also quotes what Robert Gustafsson said to the podcast “Nemo möter en vän” last year: “I know that the police are involved. This is bigger than one would think. It was not a mad man who ran up and shot him. It was an ordered assasination with many men involved, but it is being silenced.” To Aftonbladet, he now explains: “The Palme investigation has been very effective at making time pass and both consciously and unconsciously, depending on who you ask, succeeded at keeping the truth hidden.” The truth, states Gustafsson, will be “astoundingly dirty and shocking”.

This should give us insight into the extent in which the labour movement can really rely on the Swedish so-called democracy and judicial system. As Marx explained, the state is always the state of the ruling class, and the working class “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. We look forward to the day when the working class overthrows this oppressive machine, together with the entire capitalist system. Only then will we for the first time be able to open those archives which will hopefully reveal more than one of the many ugly secrets of Swedish capitalism.

This article was originally published on the website of Revolution (IMT in Sweden) on 12 June as “Palmeutredningens långa begravning av sanningen”.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.