Fri, Aug 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

How a bank robber spawned the `Stockholm Syndrome'

In 1973, a Swedish petty criminal held up a bank and entered psychoanalytical folk lore when his four hostages took his side over the police's

REUTERS , STOCKHOLM

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Thirty years ago, a Swedish armed robber stole the world's attention and the hearts of the bank workers he held hostage for six days in a drama that spawned the concept of the "Stockholm Syndrome."

The hostage crisis sucked in a prime minister pressed to win an election, police anxious to get their wages from the raided bank and journalists bored of filming the facade of the royal palace where the king lay on his death bed.

It also led psychologists to identify a phenomenon in which hostages bond with their captors. Despite threats by robber Jan "Janne" Olsson to kill them, the four workers held in the bank vault began to side with him and criticize those trying to rescue them.

The drama, made into a film by public service television to mark the anniversary, began on Aug. 23, 1973, when Olsson walked into a Kreditbanken bank in central Stockholm, wearing sunglasses and an afro wig, and pulled out a machine gun.

Firing it into the air, he shouted in English: "This party has only started!"

Olsson, a petty criminal, demanded three million crowns (worth about US$2 million today), weapons, a fast car and the release of Clark Olofsson, an old cellmate. He threatened to kill the three women and one man working at the bank if his demands were not met.

Police fetched Olofsson from prison and sent him into the bank, but they refused to meet any of Olsson's other requests and with no means to flee he holed up in the bank's vault with Olofsson and the four hostages.

The threats of violence prompted the government of then Prime Minister Olof Palme to step in. Three weeks ahead of a general election, it desperately wanted the hostage crisis to have a happy ending.

Police, too, had a particular personal interest, said Hakan Lindhe, who directed the film for SVT.

"It happened a day before the pay day of the police, and Kreditbanken was their bank. So many police wanted a swift end to it, Lindhe said.

When police took up their positions outside the bank, television cameras were camped outside the royal palace where King Gustav VI Adolf was dying. But filming the palace was much less interesting than the unfolding drama at the bank.

Once the TV cameras moved in, the drama grabbed worldwide attention and gripped viewers sent a bizarre array of suggestions to police trying to break the stalemate.

These included sending a swarm of bees into the bank vault or filling it with ping-pong balls to drive out Olsson, Olofsson and the hostages. Another idea was to send in inflatable dolls wearing police uniforms -- Olsson would fire at them and run out of bullets.

Inside the bank, Olsson made several threats to kill the hostages and made them put nooses around their necks from time to time.

However, after a few days in the vault some of the hostages started to criticize the police for their hostility and reject the efforts to free them.

In a telephone call to Palme, one of the hostages chastised the prime minister and said she was not at all afraid of Olsson and Olofsson but wanted to run off with them.

This reaction was soon dubbed the "Stockholm Syndrome," which psychologists describe as a defense mechanism which captives consciously or unconsciously use to try to cope with the situation and avoid harm.

"It's a survival strategy to build this connection. If there is a connection, it will be more difficult for the perpetrator to carry out his threats," said Magnus Lindgren, researcher at Sweden's National Police Board.

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