40 years since Stockholm Syndrome Hostage drama

'Harder to kill a person who you have feelings for'

4:12 min

Forty years ago Janne Olsson stepped into a bank on Norrmalmstorg in central Stockholm firing shots in the air and screaming “The party has only started!”.

He took four young clerks hostage. Then he demanded that one of Sweden’s most notorious gangsters, Clark Olofsson, be released from prison and brought to the bank along with three million krona and two guns.

It was the start of a six-day drama broadcast live to Sweden and the world.

The way the hostages reacted to their captors – defending them and even visiting them in prison afterwards - soon became known as the Stockholm Syndrome.

‘I trust them completely’

23-year-old Kristin Enmark was the youngest of the hostages. She pleaded over the phone with Prime Minister Olof Palme to be allowed to leave the bank vault with her captors.

“I’m not one bit afraid of those two. I trust them completely. Can’t you just let us go with them?” she said, and accused Palme of playing games with the hostages’ lives.

She even pleaded with another hostage to let Janne Olsson shoot him in the legs so that the police would take the situation more seriously. Years later, when she had left the bank and re-trained as a psychologist, Enmark said she was perplexed by the way she had acted.

“I said, ‘but Sven – it’s just the legs!’ How could you say something like that to someone who is going to be shot? Something strange happens to your morals and values and your sense of right and wrong when you’re locked up like that,” she told Swedish Radio in an interview.

Media circus

Although the 1973 hostage crisis is best known for coining the phrase Stockholm Syndrome – it is not the only strange aspect of the drama.

It was the first time Swedish police had handled such an event – and they did it in the full spotlight of a media circus camped out outside the bank.

Police gave interviews out on the street while inside the vault the Olsson and Olofsson listened to live radio coverage – and contributed with their own side of the story over the phone.

“My task in here is purely as a negotiator - to prevent blood from being spilt. I want to see to it that no one gets shot to death,” Clark Olofsson told Swedish Radio in one of many media interviews where he offered opinions on where the police were going wrong.

It later emerged that he had planned the entire event in advance with Janne Olsson in order to escape from prison.

‘They made it hard to kill’

The way the siege ended - with police withholding food and water, cutting out the lights, and finally spraying in tear gas – could have resulted in a tragedy, if the hostage takers had been more ruthless.

Janne Olsson later attributed the peaceful outcome to the fact that the hostages were so cooperative and that he had gotten to know them. “They made it hard to kill,” he said.

But how differently would a similar incident be handled today?

One notable difference would be the absence of the Prime Minister, who played a prominent role in the Norrmalmstorg drama, which happened just weeks before a general election.

“Of course he wouldn’t be there. It’s a police matter to handle a hostage situation. And today we would use much more of a mix of negotiations and tactics,” said Paul Hansson, head of Stockholm Police’s hostage negotiation unit, adding that cutting off supplies is rarely an option.

Reverse syndrome a negotiating tool

“We want to understand and build up a rapport with a hostage taker and you don’t do that by denying them food and water and cutting off electricity. In fact we would perhaps deliver food instead, because we want to influence their behaviour and convince them to give up.”

But the events of 40 years ago have had a lasting legacy for police negotiators applying psychology in hostage situations.

“It takes some time for the Stockholm Syndrome to develop - what happens is that hostages develop feelings for the hostage taker because they hold their lives in their hands. That’s not so useful for negotiators, ”said Hansson.

“But the other way around - that the hostage taker develops some form of feelings for the hostage - is good for us because it’s harder to injure or kill a person who you have feelings for.”

Reporter: Tom Sullivan (tom.sullivan@sr.se)