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Olof Palme changed the world and he does so to this day. His words and deeds still inspire people to commit to democracy, human rights and peace.

Olof Palme was born on the 30th of January 1927 as the youngest child in a well-to-do family. His father died when he was only seven years old. He was a sickly child who had much time to read, and who learnt several languages very early in life.

In spite of his upper middle class origin, Olof Palme became one of the Swedish labour movement’s strongest leaders.

His political career started in 1953, when Tage Erlander, the Prime Minister, employed him as his personal secretary. Already at that time Palme had formed the ideas that characterized his political work – the elimination of colonialism, the right of national self-determination, the need for a new economic world order, the fight against racism, the dream of equal rights and the democratisation of education.

Olof Palme remained a reformer throughout his life, pursuing traditional Swedish social democratic policies. He believed in a strong society in which full employment and the public sector were the two most important means to increase equality between different social groups as well as between men and women. One of his basic ideas was the concept of a general welfare policy – everybody, regardless of their resources, should benefit from the welfare system. This would maintain solidarity and the will to pay taxes, and also help to prevent the rich from obtaining private solutions out of reach of the poor.

The close friendship and co-operation with Tage Elander continued through the years, as Olof Palme was made Minister without porfolio (1963), Minister of Communication (1965), and Minister of Education (1967). It was only logical that he, at the resignation of Erlander in 1969, was elected Chairperson of the Social Democratic Party, thus becoming Prime Minister of Sweden.

At the beginning of the 1970’s the Swedish welfare system reached its peak, and the concept known as ”The Swedish Model” was coined. At the end of the decade, however, western democracies in general were beginning to experience what is sometimes called a crisis of democracy. Sweden was not spared. Olof Palme envisioned a renewal of democracy by reforming working life. Many new laws concerning the labour market were passed during these years.

Olof Palme considered the fight against unemployment to be the most important task of social democracy, and much to the irritation of new ’liberal’ and single-minded free market advocates he defended a strong society with strong labour unions and general welfare to the very end.

Both outside and inside Sweden, however, it was Palme’s international interest and commitment that made him known and esteemed. His international interest and social conscience were awakened in early years, when as a student he travelled through large parts the United States and Far East. (For his international work, see a separate article ”Olof Palme and his international role”.)

Olof Palme was basically a reformer, but he was also one of Sweden’s great speakers and agitators. His passionate commitment and challenging terminology aroused strong feelings both inside and outside Sweden. Some individuals disliked him to the point of hatred and pursued a virtual persecution of his person. But the majority of Swedes, as well as immigrants and refugees, sensed his strong solidarity with the social and economic aspirations of the Swedish people. The news of his murder cast a deep gloom over the country.

Olof Palme and his wife were walking home without security guards from the cinema late in the evening of February 28th 1986, when a man stepped out of the dark and shot him. To this day the murder remains unsolved.

Olof Palme was a man of strong convictions. ”Peace was his most important task”, said Ingvar Carlsson, his friend and successor, at his funeral, ”because he saw war as the greatest threat to humankind.”

 

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Text: Gunilla Banks

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Our goal is freedom, as far as possible, from the pressure of external conditions, freedom for individuals to develop their unique personalities, freedom to shape our lives in accordance with our own wishes. - Olof Palme, 1964