Blood on the Snow

Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme

JAN BONDESON
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Cornell University Press
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt5hh02h
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  • Book Info
    Blood on the Snow
    Book Description:

    The Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, a major figure in world politics and an ardent opponent of apartheid, was shot dead on the streets of Stockholm in February 1986. At the time of his death, Palme was deeply involved in Middle East diplomacy and was working under UN auspices to end the Iran-Iraq war. Across Scandinavia, Palme's killing had an impact similar to that of the Kennedy assassinations in the United States-and it ignited nearly as many conspiracy theories. Interest in the Palme slaying was most recently stirred by reports of the death of Christer Pettersson, who was tried for the murder twice, convicted the first time, and then acquitted on appeal.

    In his investigative account of Palme's still-unsolved murder, the historian Jan Bondeson meticulously recreates the assassination and its aftermath. Like the best works of crime fiction, this book puts the victim and his death into social context. Bondeson's work, however, is noteworthy for its dispassionate treatment of police incompetence: the police did not answer a witness's phone call reporting the murder just 45 seconds after it occurred, and further time was lost as the police sought to confirm that someone had actually been shot. When the police arrived on the scene, they did not even recognize the victim as the Prime Minister. This early confusion was emblematic of the errors that were to follow.

    Bondeson demolishes the various conspiracy theories that have been devised to make sense of the killing, before suggesting a convincing explanation of his own. A brilliant piece of investigative journalism, Blood on the Snow includes crime-scene photographs and reconstructions that have never before been published and offers a gripping narrative of a crime that shocked a continent.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7012-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PREFACE: THE EIGHTY-NINE STEPS
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. 1 DEATH IN STOCKHOLM
    (pp. 1-13)

    Olof Palme was a key player in European politics in the 1970s and 1980s.¹ Born in 1928 to a wealthy and distinguished upper-class family, he was educated at a leading private school, where his superior intelligence soon became apparent. Educated at Kenyon College in Ohio and at Stockholm University, Palme dabbled in law and journalism before becoming a leading member of the European student league. He then joined the ruling Social Democratic party and became parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Tage Erlander in 1953. It has been speculated that Palme’s conversion to socialism was prompted by careerism, although it is...

  6. 2 BLOOD ON THE SNOW
    (pp. 14-24)

    After hearing the shots, building contractor Leif Ljungqvist turns his Chevrolet van around on the Sveavägen and drives up to the crime scene. He is only just able to catch a glimpse of the fugitive gunman: a tall, dark-haired man in a dark overcoat running up the Tunnelgatan. Ljungqvist sees that the victim is bleeding badly, and although some people are running up to try to resuscitate him, Ljungqvist’s impression is that the man’s life is lost. He grabs his car telephone and in his second attempt manages to dial the Swedish equivalent of 911, telling the operator that someone...

  7. 3 A KILLER ON THE LOOSE
    (pp. 25-38)

    If the crime scene is nightmarish and chaotic, the situation in police headquarters is complete pandemonium.¹ This nerve center of the Stockholm police, situated in modern facilities, is staffed by ten radio operators, led by three sergeants and a lieutenant on duty. But in spite of all their high-tech equipment, both the officer in charge, Lieutenant Hans Koci, and many of his subordinates seem to become completely dumbstruck when Söderström’s fateful news reaches them and Koci’s second in command, sergeant Anders Thornestedt, yells out, “It is Palme!” None of them even take the simple step of alerting all the police...

  8. 4 HANS HOLMÉR TAKES CHARGE
    (pp. 39-59)

    At the time of the murder of Olof Palme, the police commissioner in the county of Stockholm was a certain Hans Holmér. Born in Stockholm in 1930, the son of a celebrated athlete, he started his career as a lawyer and later became a police administrator. In the 1960s, he was already known as an up-and-comer, loyal to the Social Democrats. In 1970, he became head of SÄPO, the civilian secret police. He firmly allied himself with political power, and the chief of national police, Carl Persson, wrote in his memoirs that he noted a change in his former protégé...

  9. 5 THE FIRST MAIN SUSPECT: THE ODDBALL SCHOOLMASTER
    (pp. 60-75)

    In the early stages of the murder investigation, a fifty-four-year-old detective sergeant named Börje Wingren took vigorous part in the hunt for the killer. He heard about the murder on the radio when he was sitting in his apartment late at night, working on a complicated bridge problem, and promptly ran down to the police headquarters nearby. Captain Nils Linder was taking charge of the detectives, and Wingren was first sent to the Royal Viking hotel, where a man had been talking confusedly about Palme being killed before the radio bulletin was transmitted. He turned out to be an old...

  10. 6 RED HERRINGS
    (pp. 76-87)

    It is a curious circumstance that three people independently warned the authorities about an impending assassination attempt on Olof Palme.¹ On February 8, 1986, Yugoslav former soldier of fortune Ivan von Birchan approached the office of one of the Stockholm civic councilors, claiming that a CIA agent named Charles Morgan had tried to hire him to kill Palme. Although he would have been paid $2.8 million for the assassination, von Birchan declined. The reason the CIA was trying to kill Palme was that a secret organization headed by Henry Kissinger and Caspar Weinberger wanted to prevent him from being elected...

  11. 7 THE KURDISH CONSPIRACY
    (pp. 88-97)

    From the 1960s onward, there was a considerable immigration of foreigners into Sweden. One reason for this was that booming industries needed workers, another, that the Social Democrats showed praiseworthy zeal in making Sweden a safe haven for refugees fleeing terror and persecution in their home countries. The vast majority of these immigrants were decent, hardworking people, and they did much to inject a cosmopolitan flavor into the somewhat narrow-minded Swedish culture. But this unrestricted immigration had its drawbacks, mainly that the country’s generous social benefits, lax policing, and short prison sentences attracted criminal elements from abroad. Tougher and better...

  12. 8 EBBE CARLSSON’S SECRET INVESTIGATION
    (pp. 98-111)

    What Hans Holmér left behind was the wreck of a police investigation. Since mid-1986, the police work had been devoted to the investigation of the PKK, and all other leads, including vital testimony from witnesses at the crime scene, had been ignored. Had it been the intention of prime minister Ingvar Carlsson and his government that the murder investigation should regain lost time and close in on the killer, it would have made sense to appoint a high-ranking detective as Holmér’s successor, someone who had the skill and experience to work with the prosecutors to digest the enormous amount of...

  13. 9 THE SECOND MAIN SUSPECT: THE BAYONET KILLER
    (pp. 112-131)

    The departure of Hans Holmér had been wholly beneficial for the long-suffering detectives in the Palme investigation. A further improvement came in early 1988 when Holmér’s replacement, the inert bureaucrat Ulf Karlsson, was himself replaced with a young, vigorous detective, captain Hans Ölvebro. Following a pattern that the reader will now recognize, his superiors gave no signs of official dissatisfaction with Karlsson, who was in fact promoted to become deputy chief of national police. Ölvebro started cleaning up the mess left behind by Holmér’s unconventional approach to cataloguing police files and recruited a group of clever, experienced detectives who more...

  14. 10 THE TRIALS OF CHRISTER PETTERSSON
    (pp. 132-143)

    Pettersson’s defense counsel was sixty-seven-year-old Arne Liljeros, who enjoyed a good reputation among Stockholm’s criminal underworld. Yet he and his assistant, Lars Ekman, were at an immense disadvantage from the beginning. The police and prosecutors had been working as a team for eighteen months, and had had the time to master the huge amount of material in the Palme inquiry. They knew which witnesses to highlight and who should remain “forgotten.” The latter group of course included those who had made “inconvenient” observations of the murder scene, as was well as witnesses whose testimony suggested a murder conspiracy. In contrast,...

  15. 11 THE SCAPEGOAT IS NEVER TARRED
    (pp. 144-157)

    Before the high court trial, the Swedish newspapers debated what would happen if Christer Pettersson were acquitted. His ugly face was known by almost every Swede—how was some late-coming Swedish Jack Ruby to be prevented from murdering him? Some said that Pettersson should be given money to move abroad, or provided with a cottage in some desolate Lapland village. Other journalists proposed that the Swedish Dreyfus be given a new identity, and that the world’s leading plastic surgeons be challenged to change his repulsive looks.¹ But Pettersson wanted none of this. After his release, he moved back into his...

  16. 12 CONSPIRACY THEORIES
    (pp. 158-174)

    The murder of Olof Palme shocked Swedish society to the core. The police investigation of the murder was harshly criticized, particularly after the idol Holmér was found to have feet of clay, and many Swedes despaired of these bungling detectives ever catching the killer. Others saw more sinister motives at work, and wild rumors and conspiracy theories began to grow in number.¹ Quite a few people decided to start their own private murder investigations. These “Palme Detectives” were constantly at loggerheads with the police, who accused them of meddling with the detective work and harassing the witnesses.² More than one...

  17. 13 THE POLICE INVESTIGATION KEELS OVER
    (pp. 175-183)

    In June 1993, it was decided that the murder investigation should take advantage of the recent advances in criminal profiling. This method of systematically analyzing serial criminals had had some spectacular successes in the United States, leading to the arrest of several serial killers and rapists. There is less evidence that profiling is helpful in solving one isolated murder, particularly when performed more than seven years after the event, but the police had run out of leads and were desperately clutching at straws. Detective lieutenant Jan Olsson and psychiatrist Ulf Åsgård were set to work writing the profile of the...

  18. 14 DID OLOF PALME KNOW HIS KILLER?
    (pp. 184-195)

    The greatest mystery surrounding the murder of Olof Palme is the murder site. Holmér, Näss, and Lindström were all amazed at how the killer seemed to have known which way the prime minister would be walking home from the cinema.¹ Holmér told his journalist confidante Åsheden that unless it was assumed that the Palmes were followed from the cinema, everything became “insufferably enigmatic.” He later commented that one of the extraordinary features of the murder of Olof Palme was that the murder site had been chosen by the victim and not by the murderer; when asked to explain what he...

  19. 15 WHO MIGHT OLOF PALME HAVE MET?
    (pp. 196-208)

    The alternative murder scenario outlined above can fit into a number of conspiracy theories, some of which have been discussed earlier in this book. The scenario begs the question what person Olof Palme would have consented to meet at a very inconvenient time, late on a Friday night. Firstly, disturbed right-wingers like Viktor Gunnarsson and criminal alcoholics like Christer Pettersson can definitely be excluded. Nor would Palme have consented to meet, for example, a disgruntled PKK activist wanting to present a petition. Clearly the meeting outside Dekorima related to some matter of vital importance to the prime minister’s private life,...

  20. 16 THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY
    (pp. 209-212)

    Seen as a historical episode, the murder of Olof Palme is a tragicomedy. As criminal investigations go, those of the Kennedy assassination, Pan Am flight 103, and the Palme assassination have been the biggest in the world; but the last is in a class by itself with regard to the end result. The incompetence of the early police response, the attempt to frame Viktor Gunnarsson, and the gross exaggeration of the case against the PKK Kurds all make for dismal reading. Some strong arguments support the theory that Christer Pettersson killed Palme, in particular Mrs. Palme’s testimony and that of...

  21. NOTES
    (pp. 213-226)
  22. SOURCES
    (pp. 227-228)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 229-234)