Six Days In August: The Story Of The Stockholm Syndrome

Author: David King
Publisher: New York: W.W. Norton, 2020. 304p.
Reviewer: Peter A. Morrall | May 2021

I do not read fictional or factual crime stories unless this is necessary for my teaching, research, or book reviews. I do not enjoy reading about cruelty and carnage unless gaining academic insight about such events can be configured as enjoyment. That said, King’s writing about a true case of crime comprising cruelty and an ever-present threat of carnage is truly captivating (pun intended). ‘Truth’ may be captivating when written by a competent crime writer, but it is always more complex than depicted by King in this book.

David King is well versed in the art of ‘true crime’ writing. His previous books cover truly atrocious historical happenings, but ones which are not necessarily retained in the public’s memory. King manages to make them intriguing, and thereby memorable.

For example, in one he examines Hitler’s ‘beer hall putsch’ in 1923. That relatively innocuous incident, posits King, was the spark that ignited the rise of the Nazis, which then ignited a world war that left tens of millions of people dead. In this would-be coup, Hitler, aided by key Nazi figures such as Hermann Goring and Rudolf Hess along with hundreds of armed brownshirts, had usurped a political meeting in a Bavarian drinking house. After entering the beer-hall uninvited, Hitler stood on a chair, fired a shot from a pistol in the air, and declared the start of a ‘national revolution.’ Before the incident at the beer hall, Hitler was an inconsequential local politician. But the brazenness of his actions at the beer hall and the absurdities surrounding his later arrest and trial, afforded him the opportunity to employ his famed demagogic grandstanding and gain much public attention.

In another book King considers the multiple murders carried out by Marcel Petiot, a French medical practitioner. Petiot’s victims were Jewish people trying to escape from France during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation. Petiot first offered those who would become his victims help in their efforts to flee from France. He then poisoned them, stole their belongings, and burned their bodies in his basement furnace. Ironically, in 1943 he was arrested and imprisoned for a few months by the Gestapo on suspicion of aiding Jews and the French resistance. After the end of the Second World War, Petiot was convicted of twenty-six murders, but he was suspected of killing dozens more. In May of 1946 he was sentenced to death and executed by guillotine.

King has also written about the 1814-1815 Vienna Congress in which the rulers of Europe held a series of meetings to divide the territorial spoils after the defeat of Napoleon (the Congress ended after Napoleon’s last stand at Waterloo). King describes how the Congress turned out to be more than just about war and peace. As well as debating the reshaping of Europe, and ultimately much of the rest of the world, the attendees socialised fervently, which included much imbibing and fornicating. It is these frivolous social activities that provide King’s book with gripping intrigue because they are juxtaposed with the immensity of the political decisions being made during the Congress, and the immense death toll from the Napoleonic wars.

The outlier topic for King is the case of Olaf (or ‘Olaus’) Rudbeck. It is a deviation in King’s writing because it doesn’t involve deviant human performance other than possible madness. Rudbeck was a Swedish physician and scholar who in the 1600s wrote a multi-volume text titled ‘Atlantica’. In this tome, he claimed that Plato’s fictional island of Atlantis was in fact ancient Sweden. His thesis, supported by copious amounts of what he argued was indicative archaeological and historical evidence, is that Swedes of old held sway over a sophisticated civilisation that reached from their homeland to the Mediterranean Sea. According to Rudbeck, subsequent Western civilisations (from the Ancient Greeks onwards) have their origins in this Swedish Atlantis. However, many of Rudbeck’s scholarly contemporaries believed that this thesis revealed less about Atlantis and more about its author’s insanity.

In Six Days in August, King again takes an interesting if largely forgotten event and writes about it in a fascinating fashion. King’s story starts on the 23th of August 1973 when the four employees of a major bank in Stockholm, Kreditbanken, were taken hostage by a Jan-Erik ‘(Janne’) Olsson, a twenty-three-year-old career-criminal. His criminality covered safe-cracking, burglary, grand larceny, and assault. Olsson had walked into the bank in make-up, wearing a woman’s wig and sunglasses, armed with a sub-machine gun, and carrying a big bag (containing clothing, ropes, ammunition, and explosives). Ostensibly he was intent on robbery. Once in the bank he is reported to have shouted in English ‘The party starts here,’ telling everyone to get down on the floor or otherwise they would be shot. King describes in minute detail what was to happen during that day and the subsequent five days, during what became a curiously complex hostage-taking situation involving a plethora of core players and hundreds of extras.

Apart from Olsson, those directly involved included the three young female employees and one male employee of the bank who were taken hostage and used as ransom. They were thirty-one-year-old Birgitta Lundblad, twenty-one-year-old Elisabeth Oldgren, twenty-three-year-old Kristin Ehnmark, and twenty-four-year-old Sven Safstrom. Olsson had made them his captives when the bank became surrounded by police. Another career criminal, Clark Olofsson, was to become a key contributor to the intricately bizarre scene at the bank. Olofsson’s criminality covered attempted murder, assault, robbery, and drug-dealing. He was in prison at the time, but had managed to escape on numerous occasions when previously incarcerated.

Olsson demanded Olofsson’s release from prison. This was one of his demands before he would release the hostages. Olsson had known Olofsson when they had served prison time together and had previously tried to help him break out, but that attempt failed. The police and political authorities agreed to release Olofsson and take him to the bank on the condition that he would try to resolve the hostage situation peacefully. However, the role Olofsson decided to play involved playing both sides. He was even allowed to talk by telephone to the media and the Prime Minister. Olsson’s other requirements before he said he would release the hostages were a specific make of sports car and a huge sum of money. Food and beverages, including beer, were supplied to the captors and captives by the police. The beer at one point was infused with an unidentified drug. The beer was not consumed because the hostage-takers had become suspicious that it might indeed be drugged.

The principal police personnel participating directly were: Inspector Ingemar Warpefeldt (who was shot in the hand by Olsson on the first day of the seizure, and indeed he was never to work again); Inspector Morgan Rylander (who became the main communication link between the hostage-takers and the authorities); Police Commissioner Sven Thorander; Stockholm’s Chief of Police Kurt Lindroth; and Bengt-Olof Lovenlo, a police negotiator. Other police officers took up various positions within the bank. Police technician Olle Abramisson, later in the siege, was to be shot in hand and jaw by Olsson. Approximately one hundred police officers surrounded the bank, including snipers.

Dr Nils Bejerot, a psychiatrist, was advising the police about the captors’ psychological states and what could be predicted about their behaviour. He was also chosen to deliver the ransom money. Carl Persson, Chief of Swedish National Police, the Minister of Justice Lennart Geijer (responsible for police and prisons), and Prime Minister Olaf Palme were in the background. They were responsible for the overall policy regarding how to resolve what had become an intractable situation at the bank. The situation had also become the subject of widespread media interest with scores of journalists attending the scene. Consequential as well as inconsequential news and views were reported incessantly nationally and, although to lesser extent, internationally.

Olsson had herded the hostages and his co-conspirator in the Bank’s customer vault to avoid, he hoped, police recuing the hostages and either arresting or killing him and Olofsson. The police tried for days to drill through the vault ceiling. They were intent on using the holes to dispense ‘gas’ into the vault to disable those inside, thus enabling them to storm the vault. Olsson had placed nooses around the necks of the women who had to stand on boxes whenever the police started drilling. The siege ended after one-hundred-and-thirty-one hours, with CS tear gas being pumped through the drilled holes, and the police forcing their way into the vault.

What had become of special interest to the media, and particularly abhorrent to the authorities, was the apparent positive relationship developing between the hostages and their kidnappers. As way of explanation for this most strange aspect of an event already replete with outlandish aspects, a controversial psychological condition was to be fashioned.

It was Bejerot’s views about the captors-captives closeness that seeded the idea that captives could be suffering from a syndrome. King quotes Bejerot’s reflections on this condition, which later became known as the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’:

A paradox of common interest between hostage-taker and his victims arises. This can develop from understanding to sympathy and even lead the victim developing strong emotional ties to the hostage-taker.

(Bejerot in King, 2020, p.192)

For Bejerot, the bond of friendship between captor and captive may have a romantic, possibly sexual, element. It also has, he argued, the consequence of the captives, along with the captors, regarding those in authority as adversaries. Bonding commences when the captive is threatened with injury, rape, and/or death. When the threat abates, the captive’s fearfulness, whilst not necessarily disappearing, becomes reconfigured as relief and gratitude.

Out of the four captives, Kristin Enmark and Elisabeth Oldgren were noticeably sympathetic towards their captors. It was Enmark who had also been allowed to talk by telephone with the media and the Prime Minister. She had tried to cajole and remonstrate with Palme to let Olsson and Olofsson get away, and to do so unharmed. Sven Säfström was to later visit Olofsson in prison. Kristin wrote to Olofsson while he was in prison and met with him when he was on day release to visit his lawyer and spent time with him in a hotel. Later she visited him in prison, but he broke-off the relationship.

King points out that the observation of an incongruous captor-captive emotional bond was not claimed to be a ‘syndrome’ during or in the immediate aftermath of the Stockholm siege. It developed circuitously from subsequent hostage-takings during the 1970s. These included the kidnapping in 1974 of Patricia Hearst, a newspaper heiress. She was to help her kidnappers to rob multiple banks.

The diagnostic outcome of this incident from 1973 still resonates today, and has been applied to a wide range of hostage situations. Scepticism about the authenticity of this syndrome began as early as 1980, mainly due to its rarity. Also, it has come into disrepute because it implies irrationality on the part of the survivor, whereas it may be that the befriending of those who have the power to injure, rape, or kill you is extremely rational. It is a survival strategy, and one which is generally unconscious. Antagonism directed at would-be rescuers by captives can also be interpreted as being rational. The efforts of the police may trigger violence by the captor towards the captives before they can actually be protected. The American Psychiatric Association does not include Stockholm syndrome in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Nor does it appear in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases.

The author spent more than three years of full-time research during which he interviewed Olsson, Olofsson, Kristin Enmark, Sven Safstrom, and some of the police officers involved; and he examined police and court documents, and TV and radio archives. Although he mentions questions over the authenticity of the Stockholm Syndrome, he does not question the reliability and validity of his data. Documentary and audio-visual analysis and interviewing are standard social science research methodologies, but not ones without deficiencies. They provide data which will inevitably contain misremembered and mispresented material, and which is then re-interpreted by the researcher. Collecting more and more data using these techniques may not produce ‘truth’ in the sense of an objective understanding, but merely pool subjective versions. Societal contexts are mentioned. King refers to how Sweden at the time was a peaceful country, with little crime and poverty, and a very well serviced welfare state, but with a weakening economy, its king dying, and a general election looming. The latter is especially relevant because if the siege ended in bloodshed this would undermine the prime minister’s potential for re-election. But wider and more in-depth historical, political, and cultural contextualisation and analysis are absent here. Such events as this would-be robbery and hostage-taking are enveloped in a myriad of interwoven intricacies involving, to name but a few, the historical trajectory of Sweden and Western democracy, political and police power, criminal justice, psychological pathologies, and profound human emotions.

A minor criticism is the author’s adoption of an odd version of the Vancouver referencing system. References and notes are listed numerically for each chapter at the back of the book, and there the numbering continues in sequence chapter-by-chapter. But there is no corresponding numerical indicator in the relevant section of text. A second oddity is the author’s, or maybe the publisher’s, decision to place photographs which display the outcome of the story before it is described in the narrative. The visual revelation therefore becomes a ‘plot-spoiler.’

There is a third and more pertinent oddity. The author is inconsistent in how he uses first and last names. For example, he favours addressing the perpetrators by their first names (or in the case of Olsson, his sobriquet) as he does the victims. But Stockholm’s Chief of Police, the Minister of Justice, and the Prime Minister are signified by their last names. This bifurcated nomenclature of appellations implies bias. King’s tone seems both sympathetic to the captors and critical of the authorities. He provides a detailed description of the ‘hearty’ lunch Palme ate before approving the plan put forward by the police, which was to ultimately end the siege (beef stew and red beets, apparently). Furthermore, he uses Birgitta Lundblad’s accusation that Palme was more interested in party politics than human life as a prominent quotation at the start of Chapter 40. Could it be that King succumbed while collecting his data to a form of the Stockholm Syndrome which affects crime writers?

Together with his noteworthy ability to draw-in the reader, detail is one of King’s strengths as a writer. An example of his admirable attention to detail are the numbers of the buses which were rerouted because the mayhem at the bank had blocked the city centre (for interest, they are numbers 46, 47, 50, 55, and 69)!

Dr Peter Morrall, Visiting Associate Professor in Health and Sociology, School of Healthcare, Leeds University, UK Tutor, Centre for Lifelong Learning, York University, UK

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