Will the World Ever Know Who Really Killed Olof Palme?

The Swedish government says the case is now closed, but too many questions remain open.

One of the world’s most mysterious murders ultimately remains a cold—and now closed—case. In 1986, Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down on a busy downtown Stockholm street. Investigators just named the only suspect, a guy who committed suicide in 2000. For skeptics and conspiracy theorists, the mystery of who killed Palme lives.

Palme represented a moral Sweden in a messy, immoral world. His global detractors were many. His life was cut down too early, and I miss him.

The first time I saw Palme was in a grocery store in Stockholm’s old-town Gamla Stan. It was a weekend, and the prime minister was casually picking up a few staples before waiting in line to pay. Astoundingly, the nation’s most recognizable and powerful person was not only out shopping without personal security, he was doing so unhindered—not approached, stopped, acknowledged or greeted by anyone around him. It was as if he was invisible.

My instincts were to go up to him and introduce myself as an American journalist, tell him I knew he graduated from Ohio’s Kenyon College and to ask about his critical stance on America’s foreign policy — especially Vietnam—that caused a diplomatic rift between the United States and Sweden. The person I was with was horrified that I would dare to brashly assert myself. She dissuaded me from interrupting. Why? “Because it is Saturday and he is going shopping—he is not working right now. Everyone has to respect that.”

Everyone did respect that. Swedes in the 1980s had a real and deep understanding of boundaries between public and private lives.

My non-Swedish presumptuousness and American journalistic sensibility meant that I did not view public officials as being entitled to private lives. I felt they lived in the public eye and thrived on attention. Politics was full-time and all-encompassing. It sometimes felt like total war—especially with journalists. That’s how I felt when I got to Sweden. Things changed.

After a year at Stockholm University’s International Graduate School, I learned a thing or two about the country and its people. One of the most important lessons? Politicians are human. Somehow, during my entire upbringing and throughout my undergraduate years, I failed to understand that politicians are people — not villains, not superhumans. Fallible, emotional, desirous, greedy, complex, loving, silly, funny, egotistical, relatable, stand-offish, simple people.

It sounds trite to write something as simplistic as politicians are people, too, but in this moment in history, the divide between governed and government feels vast and unbridgeable. In a small country of 10 million people, where local democracy felt more direct than representational, the relationship between people and politicians was intimately close.

That’s how it felt with Olof Palme. While Palme the politician was a bit aloof and a smarty-pants politico who comfortably traveled the world, criticized powerful nations and walked the United Nations’ hallways with authority, he was still a man who could go to the grocery store to pick up provisions like a regular Joe—or Sven. He was normal.

Unfortunately, Swedish normalcy is also what got Palme killed.

Date night with his wife, Lisbet, at the cinema was his undoing. No security. No attempt at anonymity. Just another night out during his off-time to go see a movie. This time, however, someone did pay attention to his movements and possibly understood his patterns. Sweden’s relaxed social environment was a weakness, and its authorities were unprepared for and inexperienced with this type of political violence. It happened at night. The movie just let out. A tall man shot Palme twice, point blank in the back with an illegal .357 Magnum handgun. He fell dead, bleeding on a downtown Stockholm sidewalk. There were witnesses, but it was an era without cell phones and incidental video footage. It was also an innocent era.

Palme died, and Sweden lost its innocence. The real world suddenly encroached on that distant, quiet and safe nation. Sweden awoke to a violent modern world that shoved its ugly face into the nation’s consciousness. Anyone recalling Palme’s murder remembers how everything changed that night.

Palme was a powerful leader cut down in his midlife and early political career. I regularly saw him during my two years as a Radio Sweden journalist. Generous with his thoughts and cutting in his criticism, he also appreciated an American who understood his country and its global standing. Again, I still miss him.

On Wednesday, Swedish officials gave an unsatisfying answer to who killed Palme. Speculation ranged from Kurdish PKK sympathizers to agents for apartheid South Africa out to silence a harsh and vocal critic. It turns out the blame is put on a lone, dead gunman who took an opportune potshot. The case is now closed, but too many questions remain open.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.