The Stockholm Syndrome

On August 23, 1973, armed with a semiautomatic gun, the pipe sticking out of his jacket, Janne Olsson walked across a square in central Stockholm and into the Credit Bank.

“I wasn’t afraid, tense, I was oh, like a spring,” he says. “I was nervous until I opened the door, then I was just cool…the bank was mine.” 

He caused an unprecedented media frenzy and threw police into a rage, by locking himself into the bank vault with some of the bank employees, demanding 3 million in cash, the release of his bank-robber buddy and a fast get-away car.

Olsson got the buddy. He never got the millions. He got busted and sentenced to prison. He also won the trust of his hostage that ended up siding with him, surprising a whole world.

This event is what laid the foundation for what we today refer to as - The Stockholm Syndrome.

Swedish police psychologist Nils Bejerot coined the term Stockholm Syndrome, to describe the psychological response sometimes seen in hostages, when they show signs of loyalty to their hostage-taker, despite the situation.

In the bank, Olsson fired a round in the ceiling and screamed, “Everybody gets down! The party starts!”

“I heard the shots and I just got down on the floor,” says Kristin Enmark, who was a bank teller at the time.

Enmark was but 23 years old at the time for the bank robbery, the so-called Norrmalmstorg Drama. She was one of four hostages, three women and one man who were stuck in the bank vault with the robber for nearly six days. Looking back, she is still questioning herself in terms of some things she said and did, but believes in The Stockholm Syndrome and that the situation caused some of her reactions.

“It’s some kind of a context you get into when you when all your values, the moral you have change in some way,” Enmark says about the time as a hostage.

To law enforcement, still in its dawn of hostage negotiation work, the Norrmalmstorgs Drama was a breaking point, says Bertil Olofsson, who was a rookie at the police academy in 1973. Since then he’s been the commander of the Swedish counter terrorist unit, and the head of the negotiation formation with the Swedish Police. Much of Olofsson’s training has been done abroad, at The Scotland Yard in the U.K. and the Federal Bureau of Investigations in the U.S.

“Negotiation as a tactical tool for police was actually born in New York in the early 1970s,” he says and adds that the Brits and the Americans have put a lot more effort into science and studies of hostage negotiation, including The Stockholm Syndrome.

“In the hostage negotiations field, the concept was almost chiseled in stone,” says Dr. Hugh McGowan, a retired Lieutenant with the New York Police Department, who also has a PhD in criminal justice and teaches around the U.S. He has served in the NYPD for 33 years, 13 of those, as the commander of the hostage negotiation team.

Though Dr. Gowan never came across what he calls a “full-blown Stockholm [Syndrome]” during the hundreds of hostage negotiation cases he has worked, he says he doesn’t disbelieve in it.

“I think mostly because of the durations of the cases, none were as long as the one in Stockholm,” he says. But, he adds, in his experience, it is quite normal that hostages do not exactly love the police when they get freed.

“They are often very angry with the police, whom they feel have spent most of their time talking to the ‘bad guy,’ instead of shooting him and resolving the situation sooner,” McGowan says. “The hostage often feels that their hostage taker is their safety.”

And that’s exactly how Enmark felt. And she even told then Prime Minister Olof Palme that in a phone call from the vault in 1973. She said she was scared of the police and wanted to be released with Olsson and his robber companion, Clark Olofsson.

That phone call, between Enmark and Palme, would never have happened today, Bertil Olofsson and McGowan agree.

“We never let the hostage speak directly to a decision maker,” he says and sums up the whole point of having a negotiator, someone between the victim and decision maker, who stalls and tires the captivator and can hopefully convince him or her to give up, or at least, release the hostage.

Instead, one police received non-fatal wounds when Olsson shot him and he would not surrender until police had drilled holes in the bank vault and began filling it with gas.

“Just like [an extermination company] would do when you have rats in the house,” Enmark says.

Today, more than 36 years later, both captivator and hostage say they lead happy lives. Janne Olsson lives in Thailand with his wife and teenage son and recently published his autobiography, telling his version of the story. Enmark lives in Stockholm and says she has moved on, thought it took some time to do so and she will never completely forget the days locked into that bank vault back in 1973.

“I don’t like to go into banks, I must admit that, I do m I have a very good life, it doesn’t affect me so I don’t do things, but I think about it,” she says and adds:

“When I see some films from Hollywood for example James Bond and they are talking about The Stockholm Syndrome they are always in bed or someone is in love with some one and this irritates me a lot. It’s not what it’s about. It’s not about love; it’s about surviving.

By Majsan Boström