visit the grave of Olof Palme in central Stockholm.
Personal encounters and recollections
|Spanish welcome from
a Swedish prime minister
My first encounter with Olof Palme was in October of 1975. Together with seven other members of a folk-music group known as Cumcumen, I had fled Pinochets Chile some months earlier. The troupe was very famous in Chile-- something of a national institution whose previous members had included the martyred Victor Jara.
But now we were refugees in a distant land that could hardly be further away from our homes and our cultural origins. On this particular day, we were preparing to perform at a conference on the United Nations in Stockholms House of the People. As we waited in the wings, I noticed a simply-dressed man walking back and forth, reading aloud from a paper in his hand. It turned out to be our host countrys prime minister, Olof Palme, practising his speech. He was all alone--- not a body guard or anyone else in sight.
After a few moments, he noticed us standing there in our colourful national costumes. He walked over to us and, in excellent Spanish, asked us if we had been well-received as refugees and performing artists in Sweden, how we were feeling, and so on. His manner was very open and direct, totally unpretentious. I was taken with his simplicity and humility, which reminded me somewhat of our beloved Salvador Allende.
I met Olof Palme several times after that, and he always left the same impression: He was very much at ease in the company of others, was exceptionally well-informed on just about everything, and did his best to help all those who found refuge in his country. He was also a very sensitive person, open and accessible, highly intelligent, deeply committed, socially and linguistically adept. . . he was unique. I doubt that there will be another one like him in a hundred years.
In Chile, he is gratefully remembered and deeply revered. There is hardly anyone who does not know the names of Olof Palme and the Swedish ambassador, Harald Edelstam, who so forcefully condemned the military dictatorship, worked tirelessly for the release of prisoners, and helped countless survivors to reach safety abroad.
There was only one Olof Palme, alas. I miss him terribly, as do so many others.
* * *
Touched by a great spirit
As we finished our sherbet in a Harvard dining room on a spring evening in 1984, my friend asked whether I would be going to Olof Palme's talk. Knowing little of Sweden and nothing of Palme, I answered that I had a paper due the next day and was too busy to join him. We were both sophomores, but my dinner companion knew more about the world than I did. Sweden, he told me, is a very great country, and Palme a very great man. So I decided to attend.
Palme began his speech by quoting Bruno Kreisky, the Social Democratic leader of Austria. It gradually became clear to me that Palme was not just another run-of-the-mill national leader, of the sort that passes through Harvard from time to time. He was less a politician than a crusader against the cold-hearted spirit of the times, and he seemed confident that he-- that we-- could win.
This was 1984, amidst the halcyon days of the Reagan presidency, when the U.S. was carrying out its greatest arms build-up since the Second World War. The limousines of millionaire had caused a traffic jam at Reagans inauguration and, since then, to be poor was a disgrace, to be black was no longer beautiful, and left-wing politics were a sign of immaturity. Harvard bided this pitiless period as a battered island of U.S. liberalism. Appropriate enough, the university's president was the son-in-law of Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, leading architects of Sweden's general-welfare society.
My heroes at that time were Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and something about Palme recalled those martyred leaders. I think it was his irrepressible hopefulness, his certainty that it was possible to create a life-affirming world in spite of the forces of darkness all around us. It was the same uncanny mix of determination and faith that had also characterized King, who once declared: "I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land."
In delivering his message of hope, Palme made clear that he was no stranger to sorrow; he had encountered it again and again. He quoted a young woman he had met at a Swedish employment office, who was futilely interviewing for jobs. "Sometimes they say they will call me. So I go home and wait for them to call, but they never do. This has happened fifty or sixty times." It is not surprising, Palme observed, that unemployment gives rise to such maladies as broken families, prostitution, drug use and suicide.
We must all take a share in being responsible for the common good," he said. "The aim of society and of solidarity is that everyone shall have access to resources so that they will be able to realize the essential undertakings of human life, the great life
projects." Among these were "to grow up and be educated; to find playmates and friends; . . . to find a place in working life and make our own living; to find somewhere to live and make it into a home; to form a family and bring up children; . . . to secure a decent living and preserve our dignity for the inevitable frailty of old age."
The self-confident, warm and lively man at the podium offered a vision of something better. Like U.S. conservatives, Palme set a high value on private life, the "little world" of family and friends. But he understood that a vibrant democracy was a necessary prerequisite of a healthy family life. Only an inclusive general-welfare society, Palme argued, provides all of its members with the security-- and thus the freedom-- that is necessary to build a strong family rooted in a thriving community.
Palme's talk of "the great life projects" evoked the original version of the American Dream which, as Christopher Lasch pointed out, was not about the rapid acquisition of wealth, but rather participation in a society of equals. It was no small irony that a Swedish Social Democrat so eloquently expressed the American Dream at a time when our patriotic president was making it more difficult than ever for the disadvantaged to fulfil it.
Little wonder, then, that Palme became a hero for me and many others who listened to him on that April evening. Like King, he had shown us the promised land, albeit in a simple and practical manifestation.
A former bishop of Stockholm, Krister Stendahl, told me afterward that the speech revealed a side of Palme that many Swedes never got to experience. Stendahl said that at Harvard, far from the petty details of Swedish politics, it became clear that "Palme was not a party politician, but a statesman . . . . He was someone you felt spoke out of conviction, not out of calculation, and in that sense was trustworthy."
After the speech, I thanked Olof Palme before strolling home along John F. Kennedy Street. One is not touched by a great spirit without being affected by it. In subsequent years, I worked at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, followed by academic research on Swedish conceptions of solidarity and community.
In the course of that research, I had the opportunity to hear another leader of Palme's stature. After receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Nelson Mandela visited Stockholm where he was honoured by a number of solidarity groups. "Sweden was with us from the very beginning, Mandela proclaimed, "and no other nation assisted the South African freedom struggle more than Sweden did."
These words were uttered in Stockholms Concert Hall, not a hundred metres from the spot where Olof Palme was gunned down on the night of February 28, 1986. A bit further down the street is the quiet churchyard where Swedens foremost champion of solidarity lies buried.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
* * *
A genuine interest in others
I met Olof Palme many times over the years, often in connection with my work as a reporter in the port city of Göteborg. He always struck me as much more than just another politician going through the motions of public life. He had a genuine interest in other people and an astonishing memory for detail.
For example: During the election campaign of 1979, Palme visited Göteborg where he was surrounded by journalists and photographers, as usual. The big question of the day was how much financial support the government was willing to provide the citys ship-building industry, which seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis. I was in the press corps that followed with him on the ferry ride across the Göta River, and I can still recall the sight that greeted us-- hundreds of shipyard workers lining the wharf, eagerly applauding the one man who they thought could save their jobs.
As we left the ferry and walked toward the company headquarters, I joined Palme and we started to discuss the Boston crime novels of Ed McBain. I asked him if he agreed that Steve Carella is the principal character of the novels; but just as he started to reply, he was whisked off to negotiations with the company management. Sorry, he said, and disappeared inside.
As we waited outside for what felt like a very long time, I forgot all about Ed McBain and Steve Carella. Eventually, Palme emerged from the building and walked over to us. He exchanged a few words with the other reporters, but then came over to me and said, without missing a beat, Yes, Curt, I agree with you: Steve Carella is the principal figure. But cant we talk about this later? Im a little busy just now. See you later at the press conference!
Then he departed, and I stood there with my jaw hanging open as the other journalists-- full of curiosity and professional jealousy-- demanded to know: What´s the deal between you and Palme?
The novels of Ed McBain also figured in an episode involving my daughter, Annika, whom I brought along to a speech by Palme in the town of Kinna during the election campaign of 1985. She was very impressed by what she heard and, although she was only ten years old at the time, she sat down and wrote him to say that, I like you and what you said. This was entirely on her own initiative, and she made no mention of me. Our last name, Carlsson, is one that is shared by thousands of people in the Göteborg area.
A few weeks later, she got a reply from Olof Palme. It was not a form letter from the prime ministers staff, but a personal note in he expressed his pleasure at receiving her letter. He also made some observations about the election campaign, and mentioned his sadness at the recent death of his mentor and predecessor, Tage Erlander. And at the bottom he had added in his own hand, Say hello to Steve Carella!
It must have been the street address on my daughters letter.
* * *
Death, and a carpet of flowers
When I heard about Olof Palmes death, I was 16 years old and still in high school in my home town of Honolulu, Hawaii. Given that background, there were many aspects of his life and the significance of his passing that escaped me at the time. What I recall is the shock of seeing the photo, in Time magazine, of all the people crowded around a roped-off section of the street where the murder had taken place, with a solid carpet of flowers on the ground.
There was a feeling of profound shock that has stayed with me to this day-- of wonderment over how something like that could happen in a civilized country where politicians did not usually risk assassination, and where democracy worked so much better than in countless other places around the world.
* * *
Bold and crystal clear
I remember Olof Palme as the party leader who determined my own decision to become a Social Democrat. His unequivocal position against violence and oppression made a strong impression me. I thought it was excellent when he said things like, So speak the creatures of dictatorship and bloody murderers when it was called for.
I miss him. Today, there is no one who speaks so forcefully to rouse us from our slumber the way that Palme did. I have a tape recording with excerpts from his speeches that I listen to from time to time. It is hard to believe that he actually spoke the way he did. It is so crystal clear, bold and well-conceived that one feels enormously grateful that he was among us for a time, at least.
For me, it was also important that he was well-educated, had travelled a lot, and had seen a great deal. His interest and involvement in international affairs enriched the entire Social Democratic Party and made it attractive to the young people of the time, both workers and intellectuals. Ideology began to be meaningful.
Now, self-interest has become the guiding principle and international solidarity has nearly withered away. It is very sad.
Lena Klevenås, former member of Swedish parliament
* * *
To fight for a better world
* * *
Conviction and passion
I was about 14 years old when Palme was taken from us. I grew up in Sweden and lived there for the first 29 years of my life, I now live in the United States. There has not been another leader like Palme since he was killed. I don't think there will ever be one. I remember watching him on TV as a child and almost seeing him as a father, someone who watched over and cared about us.
He always spoke with conviction and passion, and even through the TV you could feel the warmth and genuine care for people that he possessed. The morning after he was killed, my mother was crying. I wondered what was wrong and when she told me I cried too. It was like a family member had been taken away from us, someone close. It was a great loss not only to my family, not only to the country of Sweden but to the world.