You must have heard of the term “Stockholm syndrome,” and you probably know that it has something to do with kidnapping and victims who fall in love with their captors. But while most people know of the phenomenon, not many know that it was born out of a bank robbery that occurred in 1973 in, well, Stockholm.
To understand what the syndrome is, you need to know what happened in that bank in Sweden’s capital city during those six days in August 1973, when four people were taken hostage. Who were the robbers, what happened to the hostages, and what was so unprecedented that it created a new syndrome?
It started on the morning of August 23, 1973, when a man crossed the street and walked into a bank during its busiest morning hours.
The Party Has Just Begun
The bank (Sveriges Kreditbanken) was located in Stockholm’s upscale Norrmalmstorg square. The man was an escaped convict with one hand holding a loaded submachine gun and the other holding a briefcase full of ammo, explosives, rope, socks, sunglasses, walkie-talkies, and a knife and transistor radio.
He pulled out the gun and fired it at the ceiling. Everything and everyone in the bank came to a sudden halt. They watched in terror as some man in makeup, with a brown wig and toy store glasses – whose mustache and eyebrows are dyed black – took control of the bank. In English, he yelled out, “The party has just begun!”
(Investigators later learned that the line was from an American movie about a convict on the loose.)
A Man With a Plan
Jan-Erik Olsson was a very clever 32-year-old criminal from Sweden who could speak English with an American accent. He was a man with a plan, and part of his plan involved a second robber – someone who was sitting in jail. But Olsson, fresh out of prison for grand larceny, was confident his buddy would meet him soon.
He placed his transistor radio on a teller’s counter and put rock music on full blast. He gave a male bookkeeper some rope to tie up a female stenographer named Kristin, by the hands and ankles. As she twisted onto her side, she saw another bound co-worker, Birgitta, lying nearby. The same bookkeeper was ordered to tie up another female employee, Elisabeth. All were in their 20s, one of them was a mother.
Bring the Top Cop
Olsson shouted, at no one in particular, “I want to talk to the police!” By that point, at around 10:30 a.m., the police were already zeroing in on the bank, which had built-in silent alarm systems to alert the police. Morgan Rylander, a sergeant in plain clothes, entered the bank to find everyone – employees, hostages, and clients – scattered on the floor.
He faced Olsson and his submachine gun. The two Swedes spoke to each other in English.
“Are you a high police officer?”
“No, but I can bring you one.”
“O.K., do so.”
As Rylander went to use a second-floor phone, another plane-clothes cop, Detective Ingemar Warpefeldt, appeared with a revolver. As he told Olsson to drop his gun, Olsson shot at the detective’s hand.
A Lonesome Cowboy
Rylander came back down, and Olsson decided to haze him a bit. Olsson said, “Let’s have a song,” so Rylander sang “Lonesome Cowboy.” “I did it softly. I was also feeling lonesome,” Rylander later told a reporter. Olsson then told Rylander to clear the bank of unwanted people, himself included. The three hostages —Kristin, Elisabeth, and Birgitta – were to stick around, of course.
The “high police officer” that Olsson was looking for came in the form of Police Superintendent Sven Thorander, a 56-year-old with silver hair who got no respect from the ex-con holding up the bank. Once Sven showed that he came bearing no weapons, Olsson agreed to start the negotiation process.
If he was going to release the hostages, he was going to need a few things…
The Ransom Demands His Friend, the Money, a Car
Order number one: bring his accomplice. And it had to be that afternoon. The accomplice was Clark Olofsson, the man sitting in prison, 90 miles away, serving a six-year sentence for armed robbery and being an accessory in the murder of a policeman. Olofsson was a known escape artist, who had once reached Lebanon.
Order number two: three million kronor ($710,000). Oh, and he wanted two pistols and a fast getaway car, too. The hostages were to go with him and all of them would be wearing helmets and bulletproof jackets supplied by the police. “If anything happens to them, the police will be to blame,” Olsson told Thorander.
What’s More Valuable Than Lives?
Later, when Olsson sat behind bars, he told a journalist that he thought his demands would be met. Why? Well, he relied on two factors: an inherent Swedish aversion to violence and the national election campaign being in full swing at the time. “I had lives for assets. What could be more valuable?” Olsson reasoned.
Thorander took it up with his superior, who then contacted the Minister of Justice, who was backed by the Prime Minister. The message from above was clear: under no circumstances would Olsson be allowed to leave the bank with the hostages.
A Six-Day War
But Olsson wasn’t going to budge. When Thorander asked Olsson if he would reconsider – perhaps trade the hostages for him – the convict grabbed Elisabeth by the throat and jammed his gun against her ribs. For the next six long, agonizing days, Olsson had his hostages under siege. They literally had a gun to their head.
For six days, explosives were set off, tear gas was released, and the hostages were nearly hanged. It was a six-day war; one that had the entire country sitting at the edges of their seats. The heist was being broadcast on television, which is why it came to be known as “the bank drama.” The bad guy in this twisted fairytale was Olsson, the man they called “the robber.”
A Reunion and a Relief
By 4 p.m. on the first day of the heist, Olsson’s first order was delivered. Into the bank walked a handsome, bearded 26-year-old, straight from his cell. Clark Olofsson was freed from his handcuffs and sent to the first floor of the bank to meet Olsson. Clark seemed confused and asked Olsson, in Swedish, “What’s going on here?”
Apparently, he didn’t recognize his old co-inmate from prison. “Oh, it’s you!” he finally said, and the two even had a laugh. They started to speak to each other in private, away from the hostages. The police couldn’t help but note Olsson’s sudden ease after Clark’s arrival. “He stopped shouting as loudly as he had been doing. He unbound the hostages,” a police commissioner reported.
You’ll Be Speaking to Me Now
It wasn’t clear whether Clark helped his old buddy plot the heist, but Olsson hid out in the weeks leading up to the heist at the home of Clark’s girlfriend, who was pregnant with Clark’s child. Now in the bank, Clark acted as the intermediary between Olsson and the police.
In the first two days, he blew open a cashier’s drawer with explosives, took the film out of the security cameras and burned it, and frequently scouted the perimeter of the bank for signs of infiltrating police. It was during his surveying that Clark found Sven, a mid-20s bank employee who was hiding in a supply room.
And Then There Were Four
Clark didn’t plan on letting Sven go, so he became the fourth hostage, joining the three young ladies. Clark’s first words to Sven were, “We don’t want any heroes here.” On day three, Saturday, Olsson put Sven (who said he knew how to operate a machine gun) to the test.
Olsson pretended to sleep with his submachine gun (which he called his “lawyer”) dangling from his lap, while Sven was only inches away from him. But Sven didn’t make a move. Whenever Olsson moved around the bank, he kept his hostages close to him. He knew that sharpshooters were set up on rooftops and at the small park across the street. His human shields would keep him safe.
The Blue Mustang, Lying in Wait
On one of his walks (with the hostages), Olsson fired at some sharpshooters in the park. He later said it was to prove a point – that he was capable of anything and that he was going to leave the bank with the hostages. Through the bank window, he could see a blue Mustang – his demanded getaway car. But without the hostages with him, it would be nothing but a trap.
Olsson was no fool; the police did fix the Mustang with a concealed radar device. Roadblocks were also set up on the outskirts of Stockholm and extra guards were posted at the capital’s two airports. The keys to the Mustang were in police hands, though.
While the government was sticking to their guns, Olsson decided to set up his headquarters on the ground-floor safety deposit vault (the police set up their own base on the floor above). In the vault, there was no sharpshooter risk, toilets were nearby, and the staircase served as a “chat staircase” for Clark and Olsson to exchange messages with the police and get food delivered.
The vault had an oppressive quality to it, which was something Olsson realized early in the game. An hour into their new abode, Elisabeth complained of feeling claustrophobic. So, Olsson put a rope, 30 feet long or so, around her neck as a leash to let her go “out for a walk.”
The First Signs of the Syndrome
“I couldn’t go far, and I was on a leash that he held, but I felt free,” Elisabeth later recalled. “I remember thinking he was very kind to allow me to leave the vault.” The seeds of “captive falling for captor” were already planted. At one point, as Kristin and Birgitta were going to the bathroom, the police discreetly asked them how many hostages there were.
“I showed them with my fingers,” Kristin said. “I felt like a traitor. I didn’t know why.” Whenever Birgitta felt as though all she had to do was make a small dash to the cops, she stopped herself. “I turned away from the police. I was part of a group. There didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it.”
Not the Typical Robber-Like Move
The police, for now, met half of Olsson’s ransom demand, tossing three canvas bags down the staircase with $350,000-worth of Swedish cash. Olsson rejected the cash, calling it “funny money” as the bills looked fake and would be highly traceable. He demanded old, rumpled up bills. As the police worked on the new demand, Olsson let the hostages make phone calls.
Kristin talked to her mother, while the others called home in vain – no one picked up. Birgitta was especially depressed as she had two kids at home. When she hung up, her eyes were wet. Olsson, caressing her cheek, said, “Try again. Don’t give up.” Not the typical move of a robber…
A Strange Atmosphere
It was cold in the vault. After midnight on one of the nights, Elisabeth woke to find that Olsson had put his gray wool jacket around her shoulders. “Jan was a mixture of brutality and tenderness. I had known him only a day when I felt his coat around me, but I was sure he had been that way all his life.”
When Olsson demanded bedding and sheets, the police, in turn, requested to inspect the hostages. The robbers agreed, and so the Commissioner looked closely at each of the four hostages, whose parents had asked for them to be checked out. Sven’s parents, in particular, were influential members of society. After the inspection, the Commissioner reported to his team about the “strange atmosphere.”
How Bizarre: A Friendship Between Captive and Captor
He reported that the hostages showed hostility toward him. He noticed how Kristin curled her lip at him, and none of the four made any desperate requests or pleading looks. It was the strangest thing: the hostages had an apparent friendship with the robbers. He was amazed to see how relaxed they were with Clark, who took them back into the vault.
Clark even had his arms around Kristin and Elisabeth’s shoulders, displaying just how comfortable they were together. It was evident by this point that the Commissioner and his team were up against an unprecedented situation – like nothing he had ever witnessed before. It was also clear that the hostages weren’t just physically fit (the purpose of the inspection), but apparently fine with their situation.
Get the Prime Minister on the Phone
By the time Olsson called the Swedish Prime Minister, he had almost all the things he had demanded. He now had to talk with the only man who could make it – his escape with the hostages – happen. “I took the phone at once,” the Prime Minister later said. Olsson gave the Prime Minister one minute to change his mind, letting him hear a hostage’s gasps for effect (he had Elisabeth by the throat).
“He began a countdown, but when fifteen seconds were left, he stopped, and I heard the phone go dead,” Prime Minister Olof Palme recalled. Kristin had her own phone call with Palme while in captivity. Their conversation, secretly taped and lasting over 40 minutes, was only later released to the public.
Dearest Olof, Sweetheart…
“I am very disappointed,” Kristin told the Prime Minister. “I think you are sitting there playing checkers with our lives. I fully trust Clark and the Robber. I am not desperate. They haven’t done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice.”
She then told Palme that she wanted him to let them “go away with the robber” – to “give them the foreign currency and two guns and let us drive off.” Palme responded: “But one can’t do that. Consider the situation: They were robbing a bank and shooting at the police.” Kristin pleaded with the Prime Minister in the least likely of ways. “Dearest Olof, sweetheart, it may sound stupid, but I want to go with the two.”
They Call Me the Robber
Kristin made her intentions clear to the Prime Minister: she wanted to live and to be let out with the robbers. The conversation ended with Kristin saying sarcastically, “Thanks for the help.” That wasn’t the only incredible phone call made during the six-day heist. Kristin’s mother phoned the bank, and when Olsson picked up, her mother asked who she was talking to.
“They call me the robber,” Olsson answered. He gave Kristin the phone for her to listen to her mother scold her for being so breezy in her publicized interviews. She told her mother that the media was making it look worse than it was.
It Wasn’t Just the Girls
For instance, when Birgitta was in tears over her children, Olsson consoled her, telling her he had two kids of his own and knew how she felt. Soon enough, she agreed with the robbers that it was the police who were keeping them away from their children. Now, if you’re thinking it was only the women who fell for the robbers, you would be mistaken.
Even Sven – the one the robbers said they wanted to kill at first – found Olsson to be quite forgiving. Olsson told him that in order to prove a point to the police and sped up the process, he was going to have to shoot him. Not to death, just in his leg – and he would “aim carefully.”
Aww, How Sweet…
Later, Sven recalled, “All that comes back to me is how kind I thought he was for saying it was just my leg he would shoot.” There was a point when the hostages feared that the police would use tear gas to get them all out. Olsson shared his theory about tear gas: that after 15 minutes, the fumes did something to your brain, making people “idiots for the rest of their lives.”
“He had told us that he would kill us all as well as himself rather than let us become that way. Hearing him say that, I remember, was another time when I thought of him as a very kind man,” Sven later revealed.
Cops and Robbers: A Power Struggle
About midway through the whole ordeal, there was a change in “the distribution of power,” Commissioner Lindroth put it. The police placed sandbags against the locked vault door, so the robbers would suddenly burst through guns blazing. Olsson also blocked the vault’s inner door, phoning the police to tell them about his new move.
It was only then that the police discovered Olsson’s identity – that it was Jan-Erik Olsson they were dealing with, a man known to have taken his standing in the prison community seriously (he once stabbed a child molester – the lowest of the low in prison society).
The police force’s next move was to use tear gas (Olsson’s greatest fear).
The “Exhaustion Tactic”
The right gas dosage was prescribed by experts – just enough to knock them out for a while so police could break in. Doctors would be there to resuscitate both the captors and captives. Timing, however, was of the essence. Commissioner Lindroth adopted his so-called “exhaustion tactic” where, through a slow grind, the robber would have no choice but to surrender.
Meanwhile, as “the country was at a stand-still,” the police were busy looking into blueprints of the vault. Tear gassing the vault was going to be tricky. The bank was nearly one hundred years old, after all. At 3 a.m. on Monday, the fifth day, Olsson managed to stall the police’s plan.
As the Days Turned to Nightmares
By this point, Lindroth and his team were exhausted; they were running on little to no sleep. The six inmates – the robbers and their captives – knew they were nearing the end. Olsson, who soldiered on by chewing caffeine tablets, was more volatile than before. There was a change of atmosphere in the vault.
As the days melted into each other, the plastic wastebaskets became the group’s toilets. One night, Kristin awoke screaming from a nightmare, to which Clark rushed to console her. Later, when police asked if she was sexually assaulted by the robbers (they heard the screams through the hidden microphones), Kristin was visibly taken aback. But it wasn’t just the screaming that prompted the question.
Hand in Hand
Kristin also mentioned, nonchalantly, that she would hold hands with Clark now and then. She explained: “Clark gave me tenderness. Yes, we held hands, but there was no sex. It made me feel enormously secure. It was what I needed.” Considering how attractive both the robbers and the hostages were, the media made it seem like the vault had turned into one large orgy.
While it was mostly untrue, after the heist was over, laboratory technicians found traces of semen on the vault carpet. As it turns out, one night, one of the female hostages (it wasn’t disclosed which one) was approached by Olsson, who asked her if he could have “a few minutes of her time.”
Their Secret Relationship
The unnamed hostage disclosed that she consented to a semi-sexual relationship (as brief as it was) with Olsson. “He asked if he could caress me, and I said, ‘Yes, you may,’ and he did,” she said, adding that he told her he hadn’t “lain with a woman for twenty-one months.” She told investigators that her consent was calculated.
She wanted to get on “an intimate footing with him” and hopefully convince him to give up this whole thing. “We had our clothes on, but he was allowed to touch my breasts and hips,” she asserted. They never went all the way. Olsson was no rapist. “We consider men who rape women to be among the worst criminals in prison,” he told the hostages.
The police decided to cut off calls from relatives. The hostages were very upset by this tactical move. They already basically hated the police at this point for “playing with their lives,” and this only increased the bond between them and the robbers. Fearful of the impending tear gas, Olsson stuffed the vent holes with newspaper, to not only hinder the gas but muffle the microphones, which he correctly assumed was how police were listening in.
Olsson later admitted that he had mulled over the idea of killing one of the hostages – to help his cause. While contemplating homicide, he was also attending to the girls’ tears, fears, and anxieties. The police then cut off the food supply.
Us vs. Them
The friendlier he was to his captives, the more Olsson reinforced his leadership. According to Sven, Olsson became their “emergency God.” Clark, on the other hand, grew more and more detached. He even burned some of the cash for fun. Looking back, Kristin described how the six of them in the vault became a community. They even breathed in the same rhythm when sleeping.
“I changed my breathing to be in time with everyone else’s. That was our world. We were in the vault in order to breathe together, to survive. Whoever threatened that world was our enemy.” Down time involved chats, tic-tac-toe games, and picking each other’s brains. Birgitta asked the robbers why they never tried to get regular people jobs. “We don’t care to punch clocks; we don’t like to take orders,” Clark answered.
On Sunday night, they heard a loud drilling. The tear gas was looming. Despite Clark’s opposition, Olsson planted an explosive in one of the vents. It took two hours for the drill to penetrate the concrete ceiling, and when it did, Olsson set off the fuse. No one was injured.
Lindroth gave the robbers an ultimatum: pass over the gun and explosives through the hole “or we get tougher.” Olsson refused, the drilling continued, and in sudden desperation, Sven screamed out loud enough to be heard over the drilling. He grabbed the phone and urgently shouted, “Don’t send in gas, whatever you do.”
The Exhaustion Tactic Was Simply Too Exhausting
The cops then lowered a camera into the vault to see that the hostages were in nooses. Olsson and Clark had just placed ropes around their necks, and the ropes were tied to handles of safety deposit cabinet drawers. If gas entered, Olsson shouted out, the hostages would be strangled as they fell unconscious.
Lindroth, exhausted by his own exhaustion tactic, went home. He sent sandwiches and bottles of beer to the six in the vault. It had been over 50 hours since they had last eaten. But Olsson wasn’t going to be fooled. Like the crisp bills, the beer looked fake, or tainted. He was right; the police admitted that they had spiked the beer with a strong hypnotic. They did, however, eat the sandwiches.
New Plan: Aerosol Flasks
The tear gas was now vetoed by the police, who opted for Aerosol flasks to be used instead. Once the holes were completed, they could drop them into the vault. The Commissioner then cut off all contact with the six in the vault. No more food or drink. Just drilling.
As a third hole was being drilled, Olsson fired at a policeman, but the bullet buried itself in a protective sandbag. The cops were no fools, either. It was now Tuesday morning, and the vault wasdark. They were forced to hear the drilling blindly. By 9 p.m., seven holes were completed, and the drilling stopped.
A Tricky Job
As the six of them dreaded the worst, a special unit was preparing to administer the 15 Aerosol flasks, which had to be emptied simultaneously. It was a tricky job. Outside the vault, three cops were ready to fight Olsson and possibly Clark, armed with sawed-off shotguns and gas masks.
Other officers had to unlock the vault door. There were six ambulances parked outside, and medics and anesthesiologists were inside the bank. Everyone was ready (as much as possible) for show time. Inside the vault, the robbers and hostages had no idea what was going on. They were in darkness, hearts racing, waiting for the worst to happen.
Into the Gas Chamber
A few minutes after 9 p.m. Tuesday, the gas seeped in. The police switched on the vents to let it permeate. In gas masks, they watched the scene below. The hostages were without the nooses at this point, and while Olsson ordered them to put the ropes back on, it was too late.
They were all on the floor, choking, vomiting, eyes watering, desperate for air. The Robber suddenly yelled, “We give up, let us out!” He passed over his weapon, and the police hoisted up the submachine gun with a hook and plastic cord. Olsson, in fear of becoming demented from the gas, relinquished control. He wanted out. He wanted air.
Kisses and Hugs
The last item to be handed over were the plastic explosives. Warily, officer Larsson told Olsson to hand him the safety fuses first, then the explosives. Now disarmed, the police shouted, “Hostages first! Hostages first!” But the hostages didn’t move a muscle. They were actually rejecting their own rescue.
Kristin shouted, “No, Jan and Clark go first—you’ll gun them down if we do!” As shocked as they were to hear this, the police took Olsson and Clark first. But first, the captors and their captives hurriedly embraced each other. The women kissed the robbers and Sven shook their hands.
The Aftermath of the Bank Drama
After six days, the six people walked out of the vault, with Olsson and Clark leading the line. As Clark and Olssen disappeared into a sea of uniforms, gas masks and weapons, the hostages were put on stretchers for medical examination. Kristin, from her stretcher, called out to Clark, “I’ll see you again!”
Sven and the three women were taken to a psychiatric clinic for ten days of debriefing. The doctors encouraged the hostages to talk about what happened, and when they did, they consistently spoke of how the police were the enemy – not the robbers.
No Need to Apologize
Moreover, they thanked the robbers for keeping them alive. Interestingly, when Kristin spoke, she identified with the criminals. “That was the morning we shot at the police,” she told one of the psychiatrists.
Sven expressed his admiration for Clark, and Birgitta, a year after the bank drama, went to visit Clark in prison. “It wasn’t much, really, just memories,” she disclosed of her 30-minute conversation with the inmate. “Clark didn’t say he was sorry for anything he’d done—he needn’t have.”
The four testified as witnesses in the trial in February 1974. Olsson was charged with violent robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder whereas Clark was charged only with violent robbery. Olsson was sentenced to ten years.
Clark simply continued with the original sentence he had already been serving, having somewhat enjoyed his six-day vacation. Olsson, who was released in 1980, married a woman who sent him admiring letters while in prison. They moved to Thailand, and in 2009 he released his memoir, which he titled Stockholm Syndrome.
What Is Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome is defined as an emotional response that happens to some abuse and hostage victims, when they begin to have positive feelings toward their abuser or captor. Psychiatrists compared the hostages’ behavior to the kind of shell shock soldiers exhibit after war.
It was only a matter of months until psychiatrists started calling the strange phenomenon “Stockholm syndrome” (which became a popular term in 1974 when the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst hit the news).
The Deepest Layers of Being
Dr. Anna Freud (Freud’s daughter) called the reaction “identification with the aggressor,” which involves the deepest layers of one’s being – the unconscious memories of one’s earliest patterns of security.
As for Clark, he maintained a career in crime. In and out of prison for decades, he finally became a free man in July 2018 at the age of 71. He married a woman from Belgium named Marijke in 1976, but it ended in 1999. He is a father of six.