Palme was the leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party from 1969 until his assassination in 1986. He was also the Prime Minister of Sweden twice during this period, heading a Privy Council Government from 1969 to 1976 and a cabinet government from 1982 until his death. Palme's murder was the first of its kind in modern Swedish history and had an great impact across Scandinavia.
Palme was born in Östermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. He was born into an upper-class, conservative family. His father was of Durch ancestry and his mother, Freiin von Knieriem, was of Baltic German origin. Despite his upper class background, his political orientation came to be influenced by Social Democratic ideas and ideals. His travels in the Third World, as well as the United States – where he saw deep economic inequality and racial segregation – helped to define those views.
On a scholarship, he studied at Kenyon College, Ohio 1947–1948, graduating with a B.A. in less than a year. Inspired by radical debate in the student community, he wrote a critical essay on Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Palme wrote his senior honor thesis on United Automobile Union, which was led at the time by Walter Reuther. After graduation he traveled throughout the country and eventually ended up in Detroit, where his hero Reuther agreed to an interview which lasted several hours. In later years, Palme regularly remarked during his many subsequent American visits, that the United States had made him a socialist, a remark that often has caused confusion. Within the context of his American experience, it was not that Palme was repelled by what he found in America, but rather that he was inspired by it.
After hitchhiking through the USA, he returned to Sweden to study law at Stockholm University. During his time at university, Palme became involved in student politics, working with the Swedish National Union of Students. In 1951, he became a member of the social democratic student association in Stockholm, although it is asserted he did not attend their political meetings at the time. The following year he was elected President of the Swedish National Union of Students.
Palme attributed his becoming a socialist to three major influences:
In 1957 he was elected as an MP (Swedish: riksdagsledamot).
Olof Palme held several cabinet posts from 1963. In 1967 he became Minister of Education, and the following year, he was the target of strong criticism from left-wing students protesting against the government's plans for university reform. When party leader Tage Erlander stepped down in 1969, Palme was elected as the new leader by the Social Democratic party congress and succeeded Erlander as Prime Minister.
Palme became, alongside Raoul Wallenberg and Dag Hammarskjöld, the most internationally-known Swedish politician of the 20th century, on account of his 125-month tenure as Prime Minister, fierce opposition to American foreign policy and his assassination.
His protégé and political ally, Bernt Carlsson, who was appointed UN Commissioner for Namibia in July 1987, also suffered an untimely death. Carlsson was killed in the Pan Am Flight 103 crash on December 21, 1988 en route to the UN signing ceremony of the New York Accords the following day.
Palme was said to have had a profound impact on people's emotions; he was very popular among many on the left, but equally hated by some of his enemies on the right. This was due in part to his international activities, especially those directed against the United States, and in part to his aggressive and outspoken debating style.
As leader of a new generation of Swedish Social Democrats, Olof Palme was often described as a "revolutionary reformist". Domestically, his socialist views – especially the Social Democrat drive to expand Labour Union influence over business – engendered a great deal of hostility from more conservatively inclined Swedes. Shortly before his assassination, Palme had been accused of being pro-Soviet and not sufficiently safeguarding Sweden's national interest. Arrangements had therefore been made for him to go to Moscow to discuss a number of contentious bilateral issues, including alleged Soviet submarine incursions into Swedish waters (see U 137).
On the international scene, Palme was a widely recognised political figure because of his:
All of this ensured that Palme had many opponents (as well as many friends) abroad.
On 21 February 1968, Palme (then Minister of Education) participated in a protest in Stockholm against the USA involvement in the war in Vietnam together with the North Vietnamese Ambassador to the Soviet Union Nguyen Tho Chan. The protest was organized by the Swedish Committee for Vietnam and Palme and Nguyen were both invited as speakers. As a result of this, the USA recalled its Ambassador from Sweden and Palme was fiercely criticised by the opposition for his participation in the protest.
On 23 December 1972, Palme (then Prime Minister) made a speech in Swedish national radio where he compared the ongoing U.S. bombings of Hanoi to a number of historical atrocities, namely the bombing of Guernica, the massacres of Oradour-sur-Glane, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice and Sharpeville, and the extermination of Jews and other groups at Treblinka. The USA government called the comparison a "gross insult" and once again decided to freeze its diplomatic relations with Sweden (this time the freeze lasted for over a year).
Despite such associations and contrary to stated Social Democratic Party policy, Sweden had in fact secretly maintained extensive military co-operation with the West over a long period, and was even under the protection of a USA military security guarantee (see Swedish neutrality during the Cold War). Palme was said to have had a profound impact on people's emotions; he was very popular among many on the left, but equally detested by the right. This was due in part to his international activities, especially those directed against the United States, and in part to his aggressive and outspoken debating style.
Asked about Palme, former USA Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once answered that he usually disliked the people he agreed with and liked the people he disagreed with, adding dryly: "So Palme, I liked - a lot" .,
Olof Palme could often be seen without any bodyguard protection, and the night of his murder was one such occasion. Walking home from a cinema with his wife Lisbet Palme on the central Stockholm street Sveavägen, close to midnight on February 28, 1986, the couple were attacked by a gunman. Palme was fatally shot in the back at close range 23:21 CET. A second shot wounded Lisbet Palme. The murder is not resolved.
Police said that a taxi-driver used his mobile radio to raise the alarm. Two young girls sitting in a car close to the scene of the shooting also tried to help the prime minister. He was rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival at 00:06 CET on March 1, 1986. Mrs Palme's wound was treated and she recovered.
Deputy prime minister Ingvar Carlsson immediately assumed the duties as prime minister and as new leader of the Social Democratic Party.
For a list of streets named after Olof Palme sorted by continent and in alphabetical order, see the Olof Palme Street disambiguation page.