On a Bank Robbery

Normalmstorg Square in Stockholm, Sweden lies in the middle of a business district downtown. It connects two shopping districts as well, and, in the Swedish version of the board game Monopoly, Normalmstorg Square is the most expensive piece of real estate on the board.

Beginning on August 23, 1973, it was the site of a famous bank robbery.

One of the significant things about this robbery is that it was the first criminal event covered by live television in the country. You see, the robbery went all wrong. It happened this way: Jan-Erik Olsson was pretty much a career criminal who had been released between convictions when he attempted to hold up the Credit Bank in Stockholm (Kreditbanken). But, before he could make his getaway, the police were notified and arrived on the scene. Olsson did the only thing he could think of to protect himself–he took four of the bank employees hostage.

The police, having surrounded the bank, asked Olsson for his demands. He had a long list of them, in fact. He wanted his former cell mate brought to the bank, a man named Olofsson. He asked for two more guns (he had one already). He wanted 3,000,000 Swedish Kroners (about $300,000 at that time). He said he needed 2 bullet-proof vests. And, finally, he requested that he be given access to a Ford Mustang. That’s quite the list of demands, isn’t it?

The police contemplated the demands. They agreed that Olsson could have the car, but they insisted that he could not take any of the four hostages with him. The negotiations between robber and police continued for hours. The day ended, and no agreement between the two parties.

The next day, Olsson was able to speak to the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme. He asked Palme to allow him and Olofsson to go free, but Palme was reluctant to let the men off. Olsson then threatened to kill the hostages if not, but Palme didn’t budge. That day ended with no resolution.

Over the course of five days, the robber(s) and hostages stayed in the bank, and all of Sweden (and much of the world) watched all of these events unfold live on TV. Olsson passed the time singing to himself, reading, and walking around visiting with the hostages. Finally, on August 28, the police, who had drilled a hole in the bank vault, pumped tear gas into the building. It was enough to make Olsson surrender. He and Olofsson were charged with the crime, but it was eventually determined that Olofsson’s only role was as support for his former cellmate. In fact, Olofsson spent most of his time negotiating between police and Olsson and in keeping the hostages in good spirits.

None of the hostages was harmed.

When they were released and interviewed at length by eager TV news people, the bank employees showed surprising support for their former captor(s). All four of them expressed disappointment in Palme and told of their fear not of the robber(s) but, rather, of the overreaction to the crime by the police. The public was fascinated by their unusual stance on having been held hostage. Some psychologists suggested that they had been brainwashed by their charming captors. Nils Bejerot, a Swedish criminal psychologist, was called in by the police to analyze this phenomenon, to help determine why the hostages seemed to show such sympathy for the men who had held them hostages. He called their mindset Norrmalmstorgssyndromet.

You know it better as Stockholm Syndrome.

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