This was the Prime Minister who reigned too short. A Prime Minister who regined over one of the most glorious periods of modern Swedish history and whose early passing is still mourned today. This man is Olof Palme, twenty three countries have streets that bear the name of Olof Palme.
Sweden at the turn of the 20th century was not a rich country. It had gone through the Great Depression like all others and managed to avoid ruination by being neutral during World War II. Into that milieu was the Social Democratic Party who since the 1930s had been the ruling party of the nation. In 1946, Tage Erlander took over as the first peacetime Prime Minister for Sweden since World War II, his governance coincided with the great economic leap forward for Sweden and rapid economic growth building on the sale of raw materials to the rest of Europe (under the Marshall Plan).
At the side of Erlander was a brilliant young politican called Olof Palme. Palme was personally recurited by Erlander to work in his secretariet and understudied Erlander in various roles for 16 years before his first stint as premier. Palme was a rare character that you had to take a stand on, because he was so clear about where he stood- willing to offend great powers on principle.
It was under Palme’s government, that the Swedish model and the Swedish social security system (so widely discussed today) was put in place, he was a leading light for feminism in a Sweden that at that time was very conservative.
On the international scene, he managed to offend every major power – he was a critic of United States in the Vietnam War, Soviet Union in the Prague Spring, Franco in Spain, apartheid in South Africa, Pinochet in Chile as well as friend of Fidel Castro. He had friends and enemies, many on both sides. Palme was one of those politicians of conviction an all too rare species in modern politics – you can tell the sort because you cannot be on the fence with them (people like Margaret Thatcher, Lee Kuan Yew, Rodrigo Duterte and Charles de Gaulle come to mind). But politicians of conviction are also difficult to critisise as hypocrites because they tend to be more consistent than general politicians.
Then came 28th Feb 1986. Palme and his wife decided to go watch a movie.
Palme never made it home.
He had died instantly.
The public grief was palpable. Here was a man who oversaw one of the greatest growths of Sweden’s economy, his party was constantly the largest party in the whole nation, never winning less than 42% of the popular vote (his closest opponents never more than 26%), there was a clearly large bloc of people who liked this man.
His funeral brought a whole nation to a standstill.
All that sits today of that site, is plaque that recalls the murder of Palme.
Palme’s death continues to be unsolved and has the inspiration for many conspiracy theories. In the immediate aftermath a man called Christer Pettersen was part of a police line up (because he was in possession of a gun that loaded the same sized bullets the PM was assassinated with) and identified by Lisbet Palme as the murderer. He was however released after three years because there was no good argument for a motive. There were also arguments the Palme was killed because assassins hired by the apartheid South African government the Swedish government was funding the anti-apartheid African National Congress. Then there are stories that claimed that the US CIA tried to bribe individuals to kill Palme.
Perhaps the life of Olof Palme was more important for the fact that he showed that you could be a visionary, passionate, interesting and concerned with the world without being a mere politician. That politician is not a dirty word. That power in the hands of a sincere person with a vision can be a force for good. It is however also a cautionary tale that courage and conviction can sometimes cause one their life. Another Swede of recent memory who lived bravely and died tragically in a case still disputed was Dag Hammarskjöld, whose plane was shot down on route to peace talks.
If life is merely made up of two paths – it better to live bravely and die prematurely or live cautiously and die eventually?
ON THE MAP