This Week in History | Murder in Stockholm


One of the most influential leaders in European politics in the 1970s-80s was Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. The Social Democratic Party of Sweden had control when Palme came to power as Prime Minister and was responsible for stabilizing and improving Sweden by creating the most expansive social services in the world. Palme was an advocate of Sweden’s moderate socialism and championed the wellbeing of his country. From challenging South Africa’s Apartheid to trying to resolve the tensions during the Iran-Iraq War, Palme can best be described as a European leader in ethics. Palme’s life was as intriguing as his death was shocking. In what is often likened to a Swedish version of the J.F.K. assassination, Palme’s life was cut short by a murder that to this day, remains unsolved.

The specifics

The morning of Feb. 28, 1986, Olof Palme left for work, dismissing his bodyguards for the day for a bit of privacy. His work day began much like any other with calls and meetings till noon, when he had a single hour to himself before the official government luncheon at one that afternoon. No one knows what Palme did in his hour alone before the luncheon, but he showed up twenty minutes late to the function angry, upset, and refusing to tell anyone what was wrong. Only as the day went on did he seem to calm down.

When Palme went home for the evening, his wife discussed going to go see a movie and maybe even meeting up with their son there, and decided to take the subway to the movie. Witnesses who saw Palme reported that when he got to the station he seemed nervous and moving in an odd manner.

Palme arrived at the cinema with his wife, meeting his son and his son’s girlfriend there. When the movie was finished, Palme decided he and his wife would walk home instead of taking the subway. Though it was late, windy, 19 degrees, over a mile walk, and his wife was tired, the two began to make their journey home.

While Mr. and Mrs. Palme were walking home, a witness recalled seeing a tall and suspicious looking man in a dark coat walking across the street. He observed the man walking up to Palme and his wife before the assailant suddenly grabbed Palme by the shoulder and fired two shots into his back with a handgun. The stranger checked to make sure Palme was dead before running off.

Who killed him?

Police exhaustively searched for Palme’s killer, but to no avail. After two years they took Christer Pettersson to court for the murder, but he was acquitted because they were unable to produce the murder weapon. The police had made supposed errors in procedures during his line up, and there was a lack of a clear motive. There are dozens of conspiracy theories on Palme’s murder but some of the most popular ones include that it was an assassination by a member of the Yugoslavian security service or that perhaps Victor Gunnarson, a Swedish extremist with a dislike for Palme, may have been the one to fire the fateful shots.

Despite the numerous theories many still believe that it was Pettersson who killed Palme. Pettersson was a known criminal with a history of drug and alcohol abuse and had been once incarcerated for manslaughter. It is speculated that Pettersson may have mistook Palme for one of his drug dealers that frequented that particular path home, and that it was all a case of mistaken identity. Unfortunately, Pettersson died in 2004 and the case remains open to this day.

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