Can Europe Make It?

The bitter lessons of Olof Palme's murder

There is a morbid link between the effects of extreme hatred in Palme's days and today´s vicious propaganda and fake news multiplied by the millions on the internet.

Pierre Schori
18 June 2020
Olof Palme, then Minister of Education, asking leftist student occupiers of the Student Union Building in Stockholm to embrace democratic values, May 1968.
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Wikicommons/Pressens Bild/Scanpix. Some rights reserved.

It did not take many hours after the killing of the Prime Minister before a tsunami of messages started to pour in from our embassies to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm. Nobody claimed responsibility for Olof Palme´s death, but many people had “top secret” information of “utmost importance” to share with us.

I was deputy foreign minister at the time, and we soon had a long list of outrageous allegations, pure fantasies, possible red herrings, and credible/ less credible national and international theories of conspiracy. But there were also “items” that needed urgent attention. After adding our own analysis, we delivered a memorandum to the chief of the special investigation unit, Hans Holmér, the Chief constable of Stockholm county police.

Owing to his single-minded pursuit of a militant Kurdish group called the PKK, Holmér ignored our list. With that, the whole investigation capsized, and it would not recover till over 30 years later.

Local assets

Some of the material had links to Washington involving a certain Michael Townley, an American-born agent of the secret police of Chile during the regime of Augusto Pinochet. In 1978, Townley pled guilty to the 1976 murders of Orlando Letelier, who was President Salvador Allende´s ambassador to the United States, and his American associate Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Townley confessed that he had hired five anti-Castrist Cuban exiles to booby-trap Letelier's car. Townley often used such “local assets” for the dirty work.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He has lived under the United States Federal Witness Protection Program since his release from prison in 1983.

Based on this material we decided to approach the FBI. Our deputy head of mission in Washington, Minister Ulf Hjertonsson, established contact with the assigned official, Robert Scherrer.

The agent confirmed that Townley in fact had prepared to kill Palme, at a meeting of the Socialist International in Madrid in 1976, but he had to abandon the project because of the tight Spanish security.

Scherrer also offered to come to Stockholm to provide more information.

Of this came nothing. Holmér said he did not need the FBI – “They only want to get credit for solving the case”.

Receiving the negative answer, Scherrer had one piece of elementary advice for his Stockholm colleagues:

“Go back to the crime scene”.

Reasonable evidence

This is also what the new Palme group, established in 2017 and led by prosecutor Krister Petersson, did.

But first they took a deep look at the enormous bulk of documents assembled during more than 30 years by their predecessors. I can witness myself to the seriousness and professionalism of the new team. I met with them more than once and for several hours. They were also open to receiving additional material that I deemed important, including further information regarding Chile and South Africa. The way they asked questions and answered mine, has led me to the conclusion that the naming of the alleged killer, Stig Engström, on “reasonable evidence”, must be taken very seriously.

The prosecutor however did not rule out the possibility that Engström had acted as part of a larger conspiracy, as the New York Times noted on June 10. “He was right-wing and Palme unfriendly” was a common description of the suspect. Working closely with Olof Palme for two decades I can bear witness to the extreme hatred that he and his family had to endure.

A common feature of this campaign was a dartboard with a picture of Olof Palme covering it. The dots after the arrows were almost all in Palme´s eyes”. In several right-wing circles the killing was welcomed with joy.

A friend of Palme´s, Harry Schein, noted a few days after the killing that many were now weeping crocodile tears. “But where did all the hate pictures of Olof Palme go, with the diabolic expression, the ugly contorted faces, the grotesquely enhanced nose?” Some of today´s politicians of that sort are now saying that this was only youthful excess.

Schein remarked that even if the assassin was a lone madman, the killing of a prime minister is always a political murder. In that sense, we should not treat the tragedy on that winter night 34 years ago as a cold case.

It is not difficult to see the morbid link between the effects of extreme hatred in Palme´s days and today´s vicious propaganda and fake news multiplied by the millions on the internet. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-right extremist, who got his inspiration on the net and executed 77 young Social Democrats at their summer camp on the island of Utöya in 2011, is only one of many tragic results of letting lies, prejudice and incitement to mass murder penetrate social media. Racism is also a deadly virus.

Common security

Olof Palme had many enemies. But he had many, many more friends and supporters and was one of the most popular party leaders and prime ministers Sweden has had.

For the overwhelming majority, in Sweden and the world, his name is associated with a Western politician who gave voice to the oppressed and voiceless. He was not afraid to criticize both superpowers and their illegal wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam, he and his party provided not only words but also concrete support to democrats in Communist-ruled East Europe and to anti-Fascists in Portugal and Spain, he stood for Israel´s right to exist and saw Palestinians as a people, and he condemned apartheid and the Pinochets of this world.

Together with Willy Brandt, the German Social Democratic leader, he presented an alternative to the nuclear arms race and confrontation between East and West during the cold war, and they called it common security: “You must seek sustainable peace by sitting down with your enemy to find ways to common survival instead of threats of mutual assured destruction”. A concept that was picked up by Michail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in Geneva 1985 when the two stated that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Palme was a pro-American after his early travels and studies in the US. He often quoted from Carl Sandburg´s The People, Yes (1936) in his speeches. Today he could not have refrained to quote, I am sure, from the same poem the following verse:

“The president is the same as a king four years signing bills
in the White House and meeting people. He can do
whatever he wants to unless he is stopped”.

Palme´s last speech in 1985 to the United Nations was a call for a binding resolution to ban nuclear arms.

The basic tenet of his politics was to contribute to “making life as decent as possible for people”, as he said to David Frost in a BBC interview in 1969.

In these days of growing xenophobia and closing borders his speech on Christmas Day 1965 is worth reading, both in the Swedish and other European parliaments. Palme declared that seeing immigrants and refugees as individual human beings was crucial to their successful integration in society.

“Our commendable solidarity with the poor and oppressed of this world must be accompanied by internationalism in everyday life. That is how we can prove our ideals to be a living reality”.

That was common security in our daily lives.

Palme was an exceptional person, also at home as the brain behind a series of reforms which made Sweden more just and more aware of the rights of women, workers, and children. He reacted also as a citizen, not prime minister, when he returned a bureaucratic letter from the Stockholm municipality regarding the rules for the newly introduced preschools (which he had promoted himself) with the note: “Having read, but not understood”.

Therefore, today when we recall his death, it is important that we do not forget his life, what he stood for and achieved. Receiving the annual Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm last January, John Le Carré shared the fact that in the midst of the cold war, when nuclear arms and escalating propaganda threatened world peace, “even we in the Western spy circles felt that there was a voice missing. That voice was Olof Palme's.”

Olaf Palme 2
David Frost interviews Olof Palme in 1969. | All rights reserved.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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