Olof Palme and Obamania: Swedes’ love-hate relationship with the US

On the eve of the US mid-term elections, libertarian Swedish commentator and author Fredrik Segerfeldt takes a look at the evolution of Swedes' attitudes toward the United States – with some help from one of Sweden’s most revered singer-songwriters.

Olof Palme and Obamania: Swedes' love-hate relationship with the US
Obama's oath; Ulf Lundel-Scanpix/Pontus Lundahl (File); Palme marches in '68

On November 4th, to the shock and despair of most Swedes, the US mid-term elections are expected to confirm the drastic fall in the approval ratings of President Obama and the Democratic Party.

Let us use this moment to reflect more thoroughly on longer-term Swedish sentiments towards the United States, mirroring the political developments of both countries.

As a prism, we will use the unchallenged champion of putting music and words to the Swedish zeitgeist, Ulf Lundell.

A self-absorbed, bestselling quality fiction author that has never really been accepted by the literary establishment, and a Dylanesque singer-songwriter turned Bruce Springsteen look-alike, he is a Michael Jackson-style celebrity in Sweden. Numerous voices have been raised for his 1982 song Öppna landskap (“Open landscapes”) to replace the current national anthem.

Lundell is Sweden. But he has a great interest in America, from the title of his 1976 breakthrough novel Jack (as in beat author Jack Kerouac) to the H. (as in Hemingway) of his 2010 book En öppen vinter (“An open winter”), his stories and lyrics are soaring with references to American culture.

Just like the average Swede, Lundell never stops dwelling upon his love-hate relationship with the US. Consider the lyrics of his 1976 song USA, freely translated:

I have seen your cowboys and heard your gunshots, fatal lead

I have read your books and drunk your Coke,

I have been attracted and I have wanted to escape

Yes, there was a time when I believed in what you did and what you said

But since I saw who you really are, I despise you

You are being destroyed, you’re falling apart

I’m not grieving you

Yet, here I am, wearing your blue jeans.

In the 1950s and the early 1960s, the United States represented most of what is good in life: peace, freedom, wealth and a thriving culture. America had saved Europe from Hitler and she was protecting us from the Russians.

Everything from rock & roll and the teenager to cars, televisions and refrigerators were imported from across the Atlantic. Many of the Swedes who had left the country for the US around the turn of the century were still alive. Many more wanted to go.

There was a time when I believed in what you said and what you did.

I have been attracted and I have wanted to escape

Then there was Vietnam.

I have seen your cowboys and heard your gunshots, fatal lead

In 1972, Prime Minister Olof Palme compared the Hanoi bombings to the Holocaust, having marched side by side with North Vietnam’s ambassador to Moscow through the streets of Stockholm a few years back. Diplomatically as well as socially, the bilateral relations were at their worst ever.

But since I saw who you really are, I despise you

You are being destroyed, you’re falling apart

It is wrong to assume that the radicalization of Sweden was caused only by the war in South-East Asia. In fact, it was part of the same wave that swept over most of the Western world in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, which, in a self-reinforcing two-way process, enhanced Swedish anti-Americanism.

As in most European countries, the US has always played in important role as a divide in Swedish domestic cultural and political life, the right being for and the left being “against”. As the saying goes: tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.

During the Cold War, Sweden, albeit a democratic market-based economy, was not part of the Western alliance. Neutrality, not choosing between the Russians and the Americans, called for a reserved attitude towards the US. Then, when the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Empire imploded, the blame-game equilibrium could stop, laying the ground for a more natural but not wholehearted embrace of America.

Swedish discussions about the United States are not limited to the realm of foreign policy. Economic and welfare policies in the two countries are also at the heart of the debate. For decades, Swedes jealously looked at American’s higher living standards, a gap that was exacerbated by the severe economic crisis that struck Sweden in the early 1990s.

But Swedes could always pride themselves with their welfare state. “You don’t want it to be like in the US” was, and is, a commonly heard phrase. Swedes have an inherently benevolent view of the government.

Furthermore, Sweden is the most secularized country in the Western world, most Swedes seeing lack of faith as an inevitable result of an ongoing modernization process. And Sweden, of course, is considered among the most modern countries in the world.

Against this background, it is not surprising that Obamania was even stronger here in Sweden than in the US. And it was not all post-Bush relief.

A Sveriges Television (SVT) poll ahead of the 2008 US presidential elections found that a mere three percent of Swedes would have voted for McCain, had they been given the opportunity to cast a ballot. The rise of the Tea Party, the revival of the GOP and Obama’s problems are therefore incomprehensible to Swedish observers.

But there is also a twist of schadenfreude at America’s current economic downturn. Whereas the US is struggling with slow growth, skyrocketing unemployment, and rising debt, Sweden is widely lauded as the best crisis manager in the rich world, with a post-recession economy in excellent shape.

The world is upside down, it seems, Stockholm pundits say with smug smirks on their faces.

They are right. But not the way they think. For the greatest changes have not taken place in the US, but in Sweden. In fact, these last two decades, the Scandinavian country has gone through a tacit free-market revolution, with school vouchers and partially privatized social security as the two most pertinent examples from an American perspective. The corporate tax level has been cut in steps and is now markedly lower than in the US.

This liberalization process has led conservative American commentators to celebrate the re-election of Sweden’s centre-right Alliance government in September. The first lines of a recent Wall Street Journal Europe editorial (September 23rd) ran:

We’ve been waiting to write this for about, oh, 70 years, but here goes: It’s time the world started imitating the Scandinavian—or at least the Swedish—economic model.

And Duncan Currie of the conservative National Review Online noted that “[w]ithout much fanfare, the Scandinavian country has been moving away from socialism”, and now “offers greater business freedom, trade freedom, monetary freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, freedom from corruption, and property-rights protection than does the United States.”

This development has not really sunk into the minds of the Swedish chattering class. There is always a time-lag between reality and perception. Thus, Sweden is still going to be disappointed at the US mid-term elections.

In the meantime, Ulf Lundell is slowly turning conservative.

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Analysis: What does the Olof Palme news actually mean for Sweden?

Sweden may never know for sure who killed Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, but perhaps it is time to move on, writes The Local's editor Emma Löfgren.

Analysis: What does the Olof Palme news actually mean for Sweden?
A rose left on Wednesday at the spot where Olof Palme was shot. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

For 34 years, the unsolved murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme has been nothing short of an open wound in Sweden, and it has given rise to numerous conspiracy theories over the years.

Today, the long-running murder investigation ended, as chief prosecutor Krister Petersson revealed who he thinks held the gun: Stig Engström, an advertising consultant for insurance company Skandia, who disliked Palme and had access to weapons, but had never previously featured among the prominent suspects.

More than 130 people have confessed to killing Palme, more than 600 million kronor is estimated to have been spent on the case. It's been the biggest news story for 34 years, and it ended with a whimper.

To me, it feels surreal.

My mum was pregnant with me when Palme was killed, so I obviously don't have any of my own memories of the early days of the investigation – botched from the start as investigators tried to turn dead ends into leads.

But it has nevertheless been a major part of my life, and everyone else's life in Sweden. If you're old enough, you will always remember where you were when you first heard that the prime minister had been killed. But even if you're not, there has been no escaping the ghost of the Palme probe over the past three decades.

When I moved to Stockholm five years ago, there were so many place names that I really only associated with the murder – the hospital where the ambulance brought him, the cinema where he and his wife Lisbet spent the evening, the mystery shooter's escape route down Tunnelgatan, up the steps and into the night.

Every once in a while, there has been a new story in Swedish tabloid, a new theory for the large number of hobby detectives investigating the murder to get their teeth into, a new anniversary as the years pass by.

And now, the case is closed.

The suspect is dead, so there will never be a trial. We will never know what he would have told a court, we may never know whether he acted alone (Petersson thinks that he did, but also said that a wider conspiracy could not be ruled out). He will never be able to clear his name and a court will never be able to convict him.

As Petersson told today's press conference – a two-hour study in Swedish bureaucratic use of powerpoint presentations that took us down the long and winding road of the 34-year-old murder investigation – he as the prosecutor needs only enough evidence to bring a suspect to court, which will not happen in this case.

But that is not the same as a conviction.

Hopes were dashed today when no new forensic evidence – or indeed any forensic evidence at all – was presented, with the prosecutor basing the case on a series of incriminating, but circumstantial, factors.

Stig Engström claimed to have been a key witness at the scene of the murder. Photo: SVT/TT

Stig Engström, also known as “the Skandia man”, was questioned as a witness back in the 80s and was interviewed in the media several times. But when his witness statements did not add up, he was fairly rapidly dismissed as an unreliable attention-seeker who was simply trying to overstate his own importance.

Petersson took his time to go through a long list of evidence: that Engström's clothes matched descriptions of the killer, that no other witness on the scene was able to back up Engström's own claims of his contributions or even remember him, and that many of Engström's own movements that night matched those of the killer.

You would not normally name a deceased accused, but Petersson clearly felt an obligation to offer as thorough a presentation as possible to give Swedes an explanation they can come to terms with.

But there was no smoking gun, not even in the literal sense. Rumours that a murder weapon had been found proved insubstantial. Nothing new was presented on Wednesday – many parts of the claims of evidence against Engström had already been listed at length by journalist Thomas Pettersson in the magazine Filter in 2018. Today mostly felt like a recap of what had previously been hashed out in Swedish media.

Chief police investigator Hans Melander and chief prosecutor Krister Petersson at the press conference. Photo: Polisen/TT

I asked Petersson whether he thought the public would accept his conclusions.

He said he believed he had taken the investigation as far as it could go, but added: “I am not so stupid I don't understand that different conspiracy theories will keep afloat in the public domain the way they have done over the past 34 years. But we have a conclusion that we feel that we can stand behind.”

Palme's widow Lisbet always stuck by her original testimony, where she pointed out another man as the killer. But Palme's three sons today said that although they were disappointed with the lack of forensic evidence, they believed that prosecutor Petersson had presented a convincing case, and accepted his conclusions.

That's not a court verdict either, but perhaps his family's calm acceptance can help the rest of us find closure.

I think a lot of people in Sweden will feel a sense of disappointment today; we had all been hoping for more, for a conclusive answer. But there may also be a sense of relief. After 34 years, perhaps it is time to move on.