Earlier this year, Sweden marked the 25th anniversary of the death of one of its most charismatic leaders, Olof Palme. On Feb. 28, 1986, he was gunned down while returning home after watching a late night movie with his wife in a theater near his residence. She also was hurt but survived. I’ve walked through that spot several times during my stay in Sweden, and like anyone who has either read his biography or known him in one way or the other, I too felt some inexplicable reverence and attachment to him, even in his untimely death. As if magnetically, you are made to pause, reflect and pay your respect to him.In life, Prime Minister Palme was a great Swede, and in his tragic death, he uncannily epitomized JFK. On both accounts, he was admired and loved by the world just as much as JFK. But it is his sudden death brought by a ruthless, senseless and random act of assassination by an alleged small-time criminal that astounded Sweden and the world.
As in the case of President John F. Kennedy’s killing in the United States, there was a stunned reaction to the assassination of Palme around the world. In both tragedies, people wept and suffered from nervousness, anger and disbelief. In both countries, the events left lasting impressions on the people. Most remembered where they were when they heard about the assassinations. But most of all, the tragic death of Palme made the Swedes suspect the innocence of human beings and shattered the cocoon of protection that had made them feel safe from violence.
In the ’80s, Sweden was deemed a patch of heaven on earth because of the tranquility of life and practically nonexistent violence. Eerily, this was in stark contrast to the unrest engulfing the globe during the same period by the Cold War. Palme had strong and unhidden opinions on the attitude and behavior of both American and Russian leaders. His strong critique on this issue led to a popular conspiracy theory that he was assassinated by either the KGB or CIA, but neither found any traction. His murder — the first of its kind in modern Swedish history — had a great impact across Scandinavia.
Palme’s biography makes an interesting and inspiring read. His American education and experience molded him to be what he became upon his return to Sweden. He exemplified what one can learn from the principles and values of others and he used them in the context of his own — a quality that is missing in many of today’s world leaders. It is amazing that Palme was as much of an American as he was a Swede, in more ways than one.
Born in Stockholm to a father of Dutch ancestry and a mother of Baltic German origin, he came from an upper-class conservative family. But his political leaning and thoughts were greatly shaped by his firsthand observation of deep-rooted racial segregation in the United States and economic inequality in the Third World. This instilled in him the ideals of socialistic democracy.
After graduating from Kenyon College in Ohio with a BA in 1948, he crisscrossed the United States. In Detroit, he met his hero, Walter Reuther, the leader of the United Auto Workers. Fascinated by his interest, Reuther sat down with Palme for an interview that is said to have lasted several hours. It is perhaps this encounter and honest conversation that led Palme to believe workers deserved dignity, better wages, decent hours and a right to air their grievances to their employers, and that socialism was the path that Sweden would follow. In his later years as a suave Swedish politician, he would remark that it was the United States that made a socialist out of him — and that became a bone of contention.
Even when Sweden was politically a diminutive player on the world stage due to its small size, Palme made her stand tall and be respectfully visible. It is safe to say that the philosophy of “soft force” that Sweden applies today behind the scene on many fronts was the brainchild of Palme that endeared Sweden to much of the world. His became a voice to be listened to on every topic of international relevance: from the American entanglement in Vietnam, to communism, to apartheid, to the plight of Palestinians, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, the Swedish-American relationship was at a record low due to his outspokenness and fierce criticism against the Vietnam War.
But the truth is that his love and admiration for the United States were germinated in what he saw here during college and afterward. Rather than being repulsed by what he found, he was inspired by the strength and the foundation of faith the Americans displayed.
He was one of those politicians of our times whose humanity and compassion were not robbed by the zeal to have it all. He was gifted with the power of influencing people emotionally — friends and critics alike.
Some of his memorable quotes are so profound that on the 25th anniversary of his death, they sound almost prophetic:
“Apartheid is a unique form of evil. It is a form of tyranny that burn marks an individual from birth only because of the color of her skin. Apartheid cannot be reformed. It has to be eliminated.”
“The rights of democracy are not reserved for a select group within society; they are the rights of all the people.”
“Human beings will find a balanced situation when they do good things not because God says it, but because they feel like doing them.”
“Throughout history, people have lived in poverty and misery. They have been degraded by hunger and ignorance, they have tormented each other and been driven into war. Yet not everything has remained the same: The difference is that we have acquired greater knowledge. The difference is, above all, that we are beginning to display a willingness to take responsibility for each other. Therefore, it is not without meaning when we react, take a stance and, to the best of our ability, try to influence human development.”“My generation is haunted by the images of the Jewish children in the ghettos and the concentration camps. The crimes committed against them caused us grief that haunts us through our lives. But for the very same raison d’être we feel outraged by the images of persecuted Palestinian children, and this time it is Israel that is responsible for the offenses.”
If alive today, it is very likely that through his vision and philosophy of noncombative interventionism, Olof Palme would have averted many calamities that the world witnessed in the past quarter of a century since his assassination, notably the Bosnian War, events of 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Azad is a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He returned this month from his term as a 2010-11 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.