ON FEBRUARY 28TH 1986, when Olof Palme, Sweden’s prime minister, was assassinated, terrorism was a remote concern in his country. It took police five hours to set up barriers. He and his wife had been walking through downtown Stockholm, unprotected, after seeing a film. The leader of the Social Democratic party since 1969, Palme was a pillar of Sweden’s welfare state and the architect of its leftist foreign policy, bashing America’s war in Vietnam and courting third-world socialist governments. He also went after apartheid, so for decades speculation swirled that South African agents might have murdered him. In March Swedish investigators met intelligence services in Pretoria, and announced they would make their findings public on June 10th.
As in many Swedish thrillers, the denouement was unsatisfying. The case’s chief prosecutor, Krister Petersson, said he had concluded that Palme was murdered by Stig Engstrom, a graphic designer and centre-right activist. After the shooting, Engstrom had approached police as a witness, claiming to have left his office at Skandia, an insurance company, just as Palme and his wife were passing. But his story changed over the years, and prosecutors decided he was the killer. Engstrom died in 2000, so the case has been closed.
The resolution has frustrated Swedes, in part because no new evidence has been revealed. The murder weapon has never been found. Engstrom’s political convictions were anti-socialist, and he suffered from alcoholism and a troubled marriage. But he was not a suspect until a new team took over the investigation in 2017.
The news also seemed too arbitrary an end for such a towering figure in Swedish history. As education minister in the 1960s, Palme symbolised the country’s relaxed attitude to radical youth by making informal visits to student strikers. As infrastructure minister he oversaw the conversion from driving on the left to the right of the road. As prime minister he expanded the welfare state into a global model, with big increases in pensions, disability allowances, child care, subsidised housing and the universal health-care system. He introduced free admission to university. Some of this has been retrenched; much has not.
On the international scene, it was Palme who established Sweden’s role as an international human-rights gadfly. He bucked cold-war divisions by cultivating cordial relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, and made Sweden a haven for Americans dodging the war in Vietnam. He incarnated the Scandinavian belief that some version of democratic socialism was humanity’s unquestioned destination. As the British journalist Andrew Brown wrote of living in Sweden at the time, “The happiness and the tragedy of Palme’s years was that when Swedes looked round the world, they assumed that everyone must share Swedish ideas of decency, too.”
Palme’s personal life hewed ostentatiously to his egalitarian convictions. He and his wife lived in a modest home where journalists who came to interview him might find themselves helping to cook dinner. That informality ultimately contributed to his death. For many Swedes, Palme’s murder remains the moment at which the old socialist dream died. It seems perverse for something so important to depend not on a global conspiracy, but on the squalid actions of an insignificant individual.