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six days in august

21 february 2021

I don't remember the Stockholm Syndrome from when it happened. I was something of a news junkie in 1973, but whatever I was doing in late August of that year, I missed the Swedish hostage crisis – or perhaps it wasn't as compelling a story in real time, in American media, as it would later become in legend and pop-psychological parlance.

The hostage situation at Stockholm's Kreditbanken unfolded like a '70s movie – or to be more culturally specific, like a novel by Sjöwall & Wahlöö. The crime, and the police and media reaction to it, ring with the absurdity and tawdriness of events in a Martin Beck novel. At times David King's Six Days in August, the first English-language book about the crisis, reads like the fine translations of Sjöwall & Wahlöö's books by Alan Blair, Joan Tate, and others. One of the police commanders in 1973, Sven Thorander, was described as a "real-life Martin Beck" (16), and Per Wahlöö's own acidic comment on the media circus ("Everything to create sensation," 202) finds a place in King's story.

Given that the Kreditbanken confrontation happened 48 years ago, it is easily Googlable. King proleptically refers to the later memories of those centrally involved; it is not a spoiler to reveal that nobody was killed. Two policemen were shot by bank robber Janne Olsson, and carried scars ever after. The hostages and the criminals came away without much physical harm, as did the many other cops and negotiators. But apart from the bare outcome, maybe this is a spoiler. I enjoyed reading Six Days in August with little idea how the story would turn out, and if you would like that experience too, stop reading this webpage right now.

Along with Janne Olsson, the other criminal involved was Clark Olofsson, whose presence in the bank remains the enigmatic factor that turned the story from banal to mythical. Janne Olsson took his four hostages – Kristin Enmark, Elisabeth Oldgren, Birgitta Lundblad, and Sven Säfström – in an attempt both to get ransom money and safe passage, and to spring Clark Olofsson from prison. Janne and Clark had become prison buddies during a previous sentence of Janne's, and Clark was a dashing bank robber too improbable for Sjöwall & Wahlöö to have included in a novel.

King does not find any reason to think that Clark helped plan the caper. Clark seems to have been sitting in prison like the rest of Sweden was sitting at home when they all first learned that a violent, apparently crazy man was demanding his release. The authorities decided to send Clark into the prison to help defuse the situation. Clark, possessed of inexhaustible aplomb, took to the role and was largely responsible, as King tells the story, for the resolution being as peaceful as it was. But Clark was also clearly not one of the good guys. Among other things, he managed to leave the bank with a significant amount of money, which helped bankroll his subsequent, eminent life of further crime.

Nor was Janne entirely a bad guy. He shot cops that he thought were going to shoot him, and he threatened his hostages with shooting or hanging, and he wired the vault where he took refuge with explosives; but for a guy who shot and threatened people he was fairly considerate. Between Janne's kindness (there is not much other way to put that) and Clark's bonhomie, the stage was set for the hostages to sympathize with their captors: the Stockholm Syndrome.

All four hostages were traumatized by their experience, but all have relatively good things to say about the two crooks who shared it. By contrast, the hostages, especially as events unfolded, developed great mistrust of the police, even hostility towards them. Cops lied to hostages and captors alike, brushed aside the hostages' concerns, and proceeded with a plan to pump tear gas into an enclosed space which could have killed all six people within.

King observes that the conditions for Stockholm Syndrome were perfect: relatively benign captors with no motives besides loot and freedom, authorities that seemed threatening and callous. Most hostages don't identify with their oppressors, who can be fanatical, psychotic, or sadistic. But the Syndrome, King notes, was not a one-off thing. Enough weird things happen in the world that the dynamic has repeated itself regularly over the past four decades. Patty Hearst is the most famous example, though her version of the pattern came in 1974, so quickly on the heels of the original that few at the time drew the connection and thought of Hearst in Stockholm terms.

As with his excellent historical true-crime book Death in the City of Light, King put an immense amount of archival research into Six Days in August, at the same time transferring the story out of its original language into terrific English prose. In the current project, he was also able to talk with most of the participants, who are all still alive, including extensive interviews with both criminals and with hostages Kristin Enmark and Sven Säfström (the others have become more private about the affair). Six Days in August is a substantial contribution to the literatures of true crime and popular culture alike.

King, David. Six Days in August: The story of Stockholm Syndrome. New York: Norton, 2020. HV 7040 .S7K56