An expert's point of view on a current event.

It Can’t Happen in Sweden—Even When It Does

A disastrous pandemic and the botched Olof Palme investigation have one thing in common: Swedes’ belief that they’re special.

Swedes wave flags in the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm on June 6, 2005.
Swedes wave flags in the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm on June 6, 2005.

The assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 was a tremendous shock to Sweden. It didn’t seem improbable; it seemed impossible, as if Donald Trump were to announce he had converted to Islam. If Palme had been struck down by a meteorite, it would have seemed more credible than that he was killed by a fellow Swede.

It was easy to believe that he was dead. I was in Stockholm for the funeral cortege, and—although the service was theologically atheist—to be a part of the silent crowd that filled the gray streets for miles was one of the most profound religious experiences of my life. We felt that the entire nation was united in its grief and that in that huge, almost impersonal grief everyone could bring their own smaller, personal mournings and lay them down like wreaths at his grave.

What was hard to believe was that he could have been killed on an impulse, for no comprehensible reason. Such an enormous death seemed to demand an equally portentous explanation. That is at least the most charitable explanation for the ludicrous incompetence of the immediate official response. The responsible police chief could not be reached on the night of Palme’s killing because he was off in the countryside with a colleague’s wife. The national radio station did not broadcast a report of his death until foreign ones had done so because it was assumed to be a hoax. And once the investigation started in earnest, the man in charge, Hans Holmer, became convinced that there must have been a Kurdish gang behind it. This may have been in part because of the racism common among Swedes of his generation, but it was also part of the belief that Palme, a figure world famous in Sweden, must have been killed for his international activities.

Either way, Holmer’s fixation on the Kurds was also an expression of his faith in Sweden as a country where such assassinations could not happen and in Swedes as a people who could not be such foul criminals. This faith was very generally shared. It is part of what Swedish authorities are referring to when they cite Sweden’s very high levels of social trust in justifying their exceptionally noncoercive approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic. What the pandemic response and the Palme investigation have in common is their revelation of the self-destructive aspects of Swedish self-belief.

There have always been certain things that you could trust a decent fellow Swede never to do. They would never walk into a house without removing their shoes; they would never appear drunk in public; they would always stop whatever they were doing to watch a Swedish athlete win an important competition on TV—and no Swede would ever assassinate anyone at all. These were the things that everyone knew in their bones about being Swedish. As a literal-minded person, I would be shocked when I heard mothers upbraid their small children with the words “Sant gor man inte!”—literally “People don’t do that!”—because who would ever say it if people really never did. But of course it was an exhortation, not a description, and one that became a completely self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps there is an analogy with the blindness of the English establishment to the Cambridge spy ring of the 1940s and ’50s, including Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Harold Philby, who were all recognizably English gentlemen like their colleagues in the Foreign Office and MI6 and who therefore simply could not have spied for the Russians because it was not the sort of thing a gentleman could do. The very high levels of trust within the old British establishment were found, in Sweden, across the whole country. They were similarly vulnerable to betrayal.

When the Swedish police were driven to conclude that Palme’s killer had been a lone Swede, they picked someone as far outside respectable Swedish society as you could get while still being white: an alcoholic loser with a record who had already killed one stranger in a row over Christmas presents. Christer Pettersson was the sort of drunk who hung around on park benches. The police told Palme’s widow that their suspect was an alcoholic and put him in an identity parade wearing white shoes where all the other participants were police officers and wearing polished black shoes. “You can see which one’s the wino,” she said. This was enough to convince her that he was the killer; it was also enough for an appeal’s court to free Pettersson on the grounds of uncertain identification after he had been convicted of Palme’s assassination in the first instance.

The police now say, and they appear to be right, that the killer was a very different Swede. Stig Engstrom was upper-middle class, conservative but not apparently extremist, and employed as a graphic designer in an insurance company—a respectable man disappointed in his perfectly respectable life. He seems to have allegedly killed Palme entirely on impulse and did everything possible to draw attention to himself in the first few days of the investigation. The police seem to have dismissed him for this reason. He looked like another boring man drawn to the chance to appear interesting. But he also appeared as far too Swedish to assassinate a prime minister on impulse, even one as widely loathed as Palme.

Had he, perhaps, appeared in a novel about foreigners, he might have made a credible suspect.

This deep, strong, misplaced faith in the specialness of Sweden has reappeared in the coronavirus crisis. When all other European countries locked down in the face of the virus, the Swedes banned some large gatherings, urged people to be careful, but otherwise allowed life to continue more or less as normal. Schools stayed open because the health authorities believed that closing them would have more damaging effects on children. From the beginning, the Swedes were planning for an epidemic that would last two years or more: A month ago, the country’s chief epidemiologist, who got his training fighting Ebola and HIV/AIDS, said the measure of success was not how many had died within the first months but how many would be dead in two or five years’ time, both directly from the virus and indirectly from its effects on the economy and the rest of the health system.

But this calm planning translated into inaction. There was a national plan for the purchase of personal protective equipment, but no national authority actually bought it: The assumption was that local authorities would do their part, but in a global shortage they could not. There was a policy aim to keep the virus out of care homes, but it could not in practice be kept out.

Foreigners have marveled at the apparent equanimity of Swedes as the death toll rises and at the trust that they put in the authorities. But this can’t be understood unless you think of it as also a trust they put in themselves. It’s not just that the people trust their government, as they did until the last fortnight or so. The authorities trusted the people. Again and again in interviews with the health authorities, you could see that they believed that everyone (or almost everyone) would do their duty if it was made clear what duty demanded. Even if the country is much less blindly confident of its place in the world today than it was in 1986, there is still a sense of national unity and collective effort that is hard to find outside the rest of Scandinavia. The bureaucracy expected the national government to follow its recommendations; the national government trusted local governments; local governments trusted the people. The people trusted the experts. Imagine the surprise and disappointment when these trusts were variously betrayed.

This is a curious kind of unconscious nationalism, almost devoid of the symbols with which other nationalisms distinguish themselves. A Swedish sociologist told me recently that he had approached the information desk at Stockholm Central Station to ask about train times and been asked to rephrase his question in English. The desk was manned by an English person who did not speak Swedish. There are other countries where almost everyone can be expected to speak English as a second language well enough to ask for information about a train (although this may well not be true of Syrian refugees and other immigrants). But it’s hard to imagine any other country where the information desk in the train station of the country’s capital is manned by someone who doesn’t actually speak the native language. To do so might seem an act of national self-abnegation, an enormous cultural cringe. But that would be to understand Sweden quite backward. It is a country so self-confident in some ways that the language in which Swedishness is expressed seems unimportant.

That collective self-confidence gives it the levels of trust so envied by the outside world—and leads to disasters like the Palme investigation and, perhaps, the country’s coronavirus policy. When it is unimaginable that Sweden should be wrong, the possibility is never imagined until far too late.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout