Palme Is Assassinated

With the assassination of Olof Palme, the world was deprived of a great statesman dedicated to international peace and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

Summary of Event

On the evening of February 28, 1986, Prime Minister Olof Palme and his wife, Lisbeth Beck-Friis Palme, left a movie theater on Tunnelgaten (Tunnel Street) in Stockholm and began walking home to their apartment in the Old Town. About fifteen minutes later, as the couple turned onto Sveavagen, a major city thoroughfare, from a few yards behind, a man fired two shots at Palme, hitting Palme in the chest and abdomen and grazing Palme’s wife. The man fled, reportedly in a car. A young nurse who was passing by, not knowing who she was helping, attempted to assist the fallen prime minister. A taxi driver who had observed the incident phoned the police. Palme was taken to Sabbatsberg Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. An autopsy revealed that he had died instantly from the gunshot wound to his chest. He was fifty-nine years old. Assassinations and attempts;Olof Palme[Palme]
[kw]Palme Is Assassinated (Feb. 28, 1986)
[kw]Assassinated, Palme Is (Feb. 28, 1986)
Assassinations and attempts;Olof Palme[Palme]
[g]Europe;Feb. 28, 1986: Palme Is Assassinated[06060]
[g]Sweden;Feb. 28, 1986: Palme Is Assassinated[06060]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 28, 1986: Palme Is Assassinated[06060]
[c]Crime and scandal;Feb. 28, 1986: Palme Is Assassinated[06060]
Palme, Olof
Beck-Friis Palme, Lisbeth
Carlsson, Ingvar
Carlsson, Ebbe

At the site of the shooting, the police questioned a number of people. Two witnesses reported they saw the gunman escaping through the downtown streets. Cars leaving the city were inspected at checkpoints, and patrols were set up at airports, ferry stations, and all other border crossings. The Associated Press announced that the police were looking for a dark-haired man, thirty-five to forty years old, wearing a long, dark overcoat. This was the first assassination of a major Swedish official since King Gustav III was shot in 1972. No European head of government had been assassinated since 1973, when Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco of Spain was killed in a car bombing that was apparently carried out by Basque terrorists.

Olof Palme was born on January 30, 1927, the youngest of three children of Baltic aristocrats. He graduated in 1948 from Kenyon College in Ohio. He has been described as having a “formidable intelligence”; he spoke fluent English, French, German, and Spanish, and some Russian as well as the Scandinavian languages. His career in politics began in 1956, the same year he married Lisbeth Beck-Friis, a lawyer. Together, they had three children. His first position in the Swedish cabinet was that of minister of communications. In 1969, Palme was elected chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and from 1969 until 1976, he served as prime minister of Sweden. The defeat of the Social Democratic Party in 1976 ended forty-four years of socialist rule in Sweden. Six years later, when the party overwhelmingly won the election, Palme was reelected as prime minister, and he was reelected again in September of 1985.

Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Palme was a dominant figure in Swedish politics. His work for active international cooperation reflected Sweden’s strong policy of neutrality. At the time of his death, he was the special representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations for the conflict between Iran and Iraq. Among Western leaders, Palme held views that were furthest to the left of the political spectrum. He opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War, supported nuclear disarmament, and wanted a nuclear-free Europe. He did not hold himself aloof from the general populace; rather, he was seen often on the streets of Stockholm, chatting with constituents. He said of himself once, “I was born in the upper class, but I belong to the labor movement.”


Reactions to the news of Palme’s death were immediate and heartfelt. People assembled around the metal barricades in front of the art supplies shop where the assassination had occurred. They brought bouquets of flowers to the police guarding the area, who carried them to the spot where Palme had died. Gradually, a large mound of flowers arose at the site. Swedish radio stations suspended their regular programming and played somber classical music. Long lines of people waited to sign books of mourning. Palme’s assassination shocked the Swedish people as profoundly as the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy had shocked the American public.

Condolences and tributes arrived from Asia, South Africa, Latin America, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Australia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. World leaders reacting to the assassination described the Swedish prime minister as a great statesman and a peace-loving man; many described his loss as tragic. President Ronald Reagan expressed shock and sorrow; he praised Palme as a “man who made compassion the hallmark of Swedish policy.” Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of the United Nations said, “There are few statesmen who have had such influence in international affairs and social change.” The governments of Portugal, Nicaragua, Argentina, and India ordered periods of mourning in honor of Palme.

As officials and diplomats held a memorial service in Washington, D.C., sixty thousand people marched in a torchlight procession in Göteborg, Sweden, to a meeting where Palme was eulogized. New York Times journalist Anthony Lewis wrote, “When the political leader of a small country engages the imagination and the respect of leaders around the world, he must have special qualities of character. His persuasiveness comes not from power but from himself.”

On March 16, a secular funeral for Palme held in Stockholm City Hall was attended by dignitaries from 125 nations, including thirteen presidents and nineteen prime ministers. Security at the event was the tightest Stockholm had ever known. During the two-hour ceremony, eulogies were given by several heads of state. One million Swedes watched the funeral procession as it moved from the City Hall to the Adolf Frederik Church for the Christian burial. The white coffin, covered with a mass of red roses, was carried on a hand-drawn catafalque. When the procession reached the church, Swedish television, respecting the family’s wishes for privacy, ended its coverage of the event.

In the years prior to his assassination, Palme was accompanied at times by security guards, but on the night he died he had dismissed his guards earlier in the day. Following the assassination, Deputy Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, who was serving as acting prime minister, said that his attitude toward personal security was the same as that of Olof Palme; he expected to walk the streets of Stockholm without guards. Unanimously elected prime minister in 1988, Carlsson was often seen strolling through Stockholm, taking ordinary trains to campaign rallies, and casually mingling with the general public.

Despite investigations from leads provided to the police, an offer of 500, 000 Swedish kroner (about $86,000) for information that would help solve the murder, and advertisements placed in major newspapers around the world, the case remained unsolved. A year after the murder, the Swedish police chief, accused of incompetence, resigned, and national officials took over the investigation.

In December of 1988, the Stockholm district court arraigned Carl Gustaf Christer Pettersson, Patterson, Carl Gustaf Christer a forty-two-year-old Swede with a criminal record that included manslaughter and drug abuse who had previously been questioned in connection with the case in 1986. Pettersson was charged with the shooting. Throughout the trial held the following spring, Pettersson maintained his innocence. Palme’s widow told the court she was certain that Pettersson was the man she had seen just after the shooting. The six lay judges on the panel of judges were convinced of Pettersson’s guilt; the two professional judges on the panel voted for his acquittal. Pettersson was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but three months later an appeals court overturned the conviction, saying the evidence was inadequate, and ordered Pettersson freed immediately.

Palme’s widow accused the police and the press of sabotaging the inquiry into her husband’s assassination and the subsequent trial. Ebbe Carlsson, a journalist and publisher who was a former confidant of Olof Palme, also believed the police investigations were inadequate. Until his death in 1992, and with endorsement from Swedish law officials, Ebbe Carlsson undertook a secret inquiry, the focus of which was Kurdish immigrants and refugees. Over the years a number of conspiracy theories surfaced, but by 2006 the financial reward remained unclaimed and the crime remained unsolved. Assassinations and attempts;Olof Palme[Palme]

Further Reading

  • Bondeson, Jan. Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. Investigative account of the assassination places the events within their social context. Includes crime-scene photographs, illustrations, and index.
  • Canova, Timothy A. “The Swedish Model Betrayed.” Challenge 17 (May-June 1994). Discusses in detail Sweden’s economic difficulties since 1986 and how Olof Palme might have dealt with them.
  • Cooper, H. H. A., and Lawrence J. Redlinger. The Murder of Olof Palme: A Tale of Assassination, Deception, and Intrigue. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003. Examines all the existing evidence in the assassination and emphasizes the possible role of international factors in the crime. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Mosey, Chris. Cruel Awakening: Sweden and the Killing of Olof Palme. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Examination of Swedish society and politics by a British journalist living in Sweden uses the unsolved assassination as a starting point. Includes bibliographic references and index.

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