Palme, Rabin and the Murderers of Hope

”Satans Mördare!” Damn Killers! Are perhaps the most famous words of the Social Democratic Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. He was talking about the Franco dictatorship in Spain that was executing anti-fascist rebels by firing squad. It was classic Palme, known for calling out injustice, never one to turn a blind eye to oppression. It wasn’t only fascist countries that he called out either, he famously called the communist leaders in Czechoslovakia ”Creatures of the dictatorship” in 1975 and he was a vocal opponent to the US war in Vietnam and compared the bombing of Hanoi with Picassos Guernica.

In 1986, on the 28th of February, Palme was murdered in the street, shot in the back. It was an event that all Swedes who were old enough can remember. I was living in London as a child and my mother took me to the Swedish embassy where the red roses, the symbols of Social Democracy, were piled high and the personal grief that people felt was tangible even to a 10-year-old like me. Many people felt that Sweden had lost its innocence, and a new, harsher reality had begun.

Recently this old murder made news waves all over the world when perhaps the largest criminal investigation in history was shut down after 34 years. The police investigation now coming to a close after 34 years points the finger at one Martin Engström, who died in 2000 without ever having been arrested. They are careful to note that had he been alive, they would have arrested him but could not be certain if he would ever have been convicted. Engström was an odd character who was at the scene of the crime from the time of the murder, ”helping” the police and pointing out routes where the ”real killer” had run. He kept coming back to the police, lying and generally being a nuisance. For many years they dismissed him as a nut, focusing on all kinds of conspiracies or other theories.

In Sweden the most common feeling is one of anticlimax. Accusing a dead, perhaps crazy man, while we have no proof that he would have even been convicted? Please! I take a different view. If we accept the police hypothesis for a moment, one in which Engström was the murderer, a different image emerges. This image is one closer to the Prime Minister’s murder in Israel than we have realized. I will come back to the pathetic Engström, bear with me.

There are some obvious similarities between Olof Palme and Yitzhak Rabin. Both were Social Democrats, both were sitting prime ministers when they were murdered, both had been prime ministers twice with a stint in opposition separating these two periods. Both, also, started their careers in the military. Both changed their minds about the world. Palme changed his mind when he traveled to America and saw the inequality there. Rabin, the famous general who famously told the Israeli forces to ”break their (Palestinians) bones” but then paved the way for peace and a shared future. But there was something deeper that united them, a desire to use their powers for good, a deep respect for the responsibility of the people in charge. They did their best to make their respective countries fairer and more peaceful places. Voices of hope in a world of fear.

We shouldn’t pretend that these leaders didn’t make mistakes. Rabin partook in the ethnic cleansing of Lod (Lydda), one of the worst episodes in what Israel calls the War of Independence and most Arabs refer to as the ”Al Nakba” (catastrophe). Although, according to the Yitzhak Rabin Centre, this affected him deeply and helped turn his aspirations to peace. Palme was unnecessarily chummy with leaders of national liberation movements like Fidel Castro who didn’t always lead their countries to a fantastic future. But these failures must be understood in light of the general trajectory of their ambition, above all it must be contrasted with the ideas of the opposition. In Sweden the oppositional right wanted strict hierarchy of the classes, in Israel the oppositional right believed in a strict hierarchy of the races and a maximalist approach to the lands that Israel had conquered in the Six Day War.

So of course, the hopes of both these Prime Ministers ushered in a wave of hatred. The very idea of talking to Palestinians (Arabs! For heaven’s sake) about peace, about something closer to equality and dignity was like a red rag to the bull of the Israeli right. How dare he! They famously marched with Rabin edited into an SS uniform, because, you know, asking some Jews to move out of the houses they have been tricked into buying and into an actual Jewish state a few kilometers away is obviously the same thing as exterminating the Jews. Even more famously was one of the speakers at this rally brimming with incitement. A figure you might have heard of. Binyamin Netanyahu.

In Sweden the hot issue would not be race, as it always has been in Israel, for another 10 years. In the 80s the big thing was class. The upper classes hated the Social Democrats because they had to pay higher tax rates to pay for the social safety net. Rich people paying more in tax than poor people! How dare they! Stalinism must be right around the corner!

In Palme’s case the fight was personal. In one of the quirks of history, Palme and Engström attended the same school. As it happens, it was my school too. Weirdly, I now live down the road from Rabin’s house in Tel Aviv and feel a strong connection to both leaders. No, Palme and Engström would never have met, they went there at different times, so it is not personal in that way. But as an experience, it adds a personal flavor. Sigtuna is a beautiful village, a collection of mostly 18th century wooden houses on a lake but with roots all the way back as a capital city from the Viking age. It had two boarding schools in Palme and Engströms time (one with the unfortunate acronym SS, Sigtunaskolan). By the time I went there these schools had been merged into one. The school that still exists outside the village cuts an imposing figure on the landscape, with one of its many buildings mirroring the Parthenon, with Greco-Roman pillars to boot. Attending a boarding school in Sweden, unlike in Israel, is mainly an elite phenomenon, but unlike in the UK, it is very unusual. Only three boarding schools exist in Sweden. There was one more that was shut down, I will come back to that.

From my perspective, it makes complete sense that both Engström and Palme would have gone to this school. The school has lofty ideals, and a phenomenal education. The teachers are the best in the land. I swear that I can remember everything that was ever taught in history class. It encourages critical thinking and provides a calm environment perfect to make the most of the meritocracy, with quirks like two hours of mandatory homework study time every day. For those that can use that sort of thing it also provides the very best connections you can imagine. Palme attended the school 1936-43, and seems to have had similar experiences to my own. He did very well there academically and felt the same passion I felt about learning, especially history, a host of languages and literature. He was well liked and established many friendships there. For someone like Olof Palme, although he was born into privilege, this deep connection to the humanist tradition would set him on the path to become a lifelong Social Democrat and a warrior for justice and human rights.

However, a darker side ran throughout the school’s history. Palme spoke to his friends after his time at the school about the bullying and the terror the older students could inflict upon the younger. The horrors of the 20th century also left its mark on the school. In Palme’s biography we can read, “in 1936 the school paper had decried antisemitism and the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis in Germany (…) but there was no call to arms against Nazism and fascism (which in) practice meant that there were many who openly admired the Nazis.”* The fascist connection may have been a fringe phenomenon through the ages, but the basic idea that underpins fascism – the hatred of weakness, was ever present. Initiation rites were and possibly still are used to force humiliation upon the new students, leading to a system where the older students had power over younger ones and cruelty was key to popularity. As recently as 2013 the school would again be reported to the authorities because they older students were savagely beating younger students with punches and kicks because they failed doing the pushups that they had been told to do. Another of the boarding schools was convicted 2014 after a younger student was burned with a hot iron during initiation, leading to second degree burns. A third boarding school was shut down already in the 1973 because of the scandal created by a book that described all the violence going on there. ”The Evil” by ex-student Jan Guillou became a best seller. Often, sexual humiliation was key. In my time I watched new girls from the girl’s dorm next door being marched into our boy’s dorm in bathing suits and asked to lay down on the floor. Candies were dipped in honey and placed all over their bodies, with the older boys shouting where to place the candies, their instructions got ever bolder and the candies were placed in ever more intimate places. The older boys then forced the new boys, who were in blindfolds and had their hands tied, to find the candies with their mouths. All the while the adults watched the spectacle and did nothing to stop it. Now bullying happens everywhere, but in places where bullying has an adult sanction, the feeling of helplessness multiplies.

For many of the elite that attended the school, Social Democracy was the enemy. Of course, the haters of weakness would resent the systems set up to help the weakest. When Palme became a social democrat some years after leaving the school, this was no common ideological disagreement. He was a class traitor. The little we know about the loner Martin Engström is that he went to the school, did well in life, lived in a villa in a leafy suburb of Stockholm and briefly was part of his local chapter of the right wing Moderaterna party. From these few facts we can gather that he moved in circles who loved hierarchy and class privilege and hated the working class and their political party, the Social Democrats. Above all the hatred against the class traitor who had become their leader.

It is not hard to see the connection to Yigal Amir, born into a segment of society of rigid morals and religious fundamentalism, where the separation of the idea of the chosen people and the master race at times are paper thin at best. He was a fanatical soldier, sought out extremist rabbis to follow and had messianic delusions about himself as the harbinger of history. Sadly, these delusions turned out to be anything but. Rabin was murdered at a peace rally in Tel Aviv on the 4th of November 1994 by three shots to the back. The blood covered a slip of paper he had in his pocket with the words to a song of peace. Yigal Amir was arrested on the spot.

Both Amir and Engström seem to be outsiders that desperately wanted to conform, to fit in, and to matter. Engström was an alcoholic, Amir was depressed. But the phenomenon of murderers who kill strangers is not actually random. Any society may have any number of people willing to kill for a number of reasons. But who do they kill? Incitement, politics, culture and religion all have their part to play. School shootings happen nearly exclusively in the US, while the phenomena of suicide bombings are restricted to a small number of countries and cultures. They kill because their environment is pushing them in a certain direction and they take it to the extreme.

There is another way in which Palme and Rabin were similar. They were leaders who had a direction, a purpose. It has more to do with the time period than them personally, but it is striking none the less. In those days policies meant much more than they do today. Peace was something that could be achieved while a society could choose a more inclusive path such as social democracy. In the 90s politics began to change. First came men like Blair and Clinton. I admire them both because of their peace efforts and their internationalism, but through mass incarceration (Clinton) and free market policies (both) the pair led the way to a mindset where we believed real change was just never going to happen. Things would slowly get better and there is not much else to be done. Everything will be all right. This kind of politics spawned a new type of opposition. Amir- and Engström’s dream politics. A politics that agrees wholeheartedly that nothing can be changed but instead of living in the best of worlds, we live in the worst one. Constantly enemies are threatening the nation from within and from without. Fear them! Fear the other! While you are busy fearing them, we will steal the nation’s wealth because we have no ideology other than ourselves. In Israel the conversation has turned from creating a Palestinian state to ”solving” the problem by officially annexing and declaring apartheid in the West Bank. Even though Netanyahu was at this rally full of hatred in the 90s, the tragic irony is that his true purpose was always power for himself, he would drop the settlers in a heartbeat if it would benefit him personally, but he hitched his wagon to the extremists and wins elections from them so it all works out. For him that is. And for people like Yigal Amir. Netanyahu has devolved politics to a referendum on him as a person and the opposition has swallowed it, reaching a low point in the ”anyone but Bibi” campaign. The only people who can say ”anyone but Bibi” are people who have never heard of Miri Regev, Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Liberman. Also, social media and fake news has seen to that 40 per cent of Israelis don’t even accept that Yigal Amir was the real killer.

It is true that we still have Palme’s party in charge of the government in Sweden. But the rules of the game have changed and at the worst of times it seems politics is devolving to a referendum on immigration and culture war.  Ex neo Nazis now run the second biggest party, the ”Sweden Democrats”, and they are ready to hound minorities, work to end democracy and make off with the state coffers whenever they can come to power. Such is the way of the populists.

Yes, the killers killed more than two people; they killed the very idea that change is possible. They killed hope for a generation.

Now more than ever we need leaders who can believe in the change we so desperately need. The job of actually reversing inequality and actually reversing climate change will take extraordinary leadership. We would do well in finding inspiration in some of the people who had to pay the ultimate price for their vision.

Further reading:

*from “Berggren, Henrik: Underbara dagar framför oss: En biografi över Olof Palme” translation is my own.

About the Author
Toby Gisle is 42 years old, and a trained circus performer who now works as an English teacher in Tel Aviv. Although he grew up in London, he is originally from Sweden. His writings have appeared in a few different publications in Sweden.
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