In a Word: 50 Years of Stockholm Syndrome

Discover what happened in Stockholm that led to the coining of its eponymous syndrome.

Modern-day Norrmalmstorg Square, Stockholm, Sweden. (Shutterstock)

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Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

On the morning of August 23, 1973, Janne-Erik “Janne” Olsson, a tall, muscular man in his early 30s, pulled together what he needed for the day’s tasks. That included a transistor radio, a pair of sunglasses, a little makeup, a woman’s wig, and a submachine gun.

He crossed Norrmalmstorg Square in Stockholm and entered the Sveriges Kreditbanken. There, he pulled his weapon from under his jacket, shot off a round, and shouted, in English, “The party begins!” Thus began a hostage situation that would last for more than 130 hours.

Olsson was a safe-cracker and had been serving three years for grand larceny, but he was on temporary furlough from the prison at the time. Instead of returning to his cell, as was expected, he decided to make a run at a bank.

After his initial outburst, he turned up some rock music on his little radio, a soundtrack to what seemed — then as well as now — like something out of a movie. Olsson took three hostages, all women: Kristin Enmark, Birgitta Lundblad, and Elisabeth Oldgren.

The police arrived — with sharpshooters — to hear Olsson’s demands. He told them he wanted 3 million Swedish krona (over USD$4 million today), a getaway car, and to have Clark Olofsson brought to him, and then he and the hostages moved into the bank vault to await a response, leaving the heavy door partially open.

Clark Olofsson — the man Olsson wanted as an accomplice — was a notorious bank robber who had escaped from prison several times. He was somewhat of a celebrity in his day, like a Swedish John Dillinger. Olsson had met him in prison, where Olofsson was serving time as an accessory to murder in the death of a police officer in 1966, and the two had struck up a friendship.

Perhaps surprisingly, the police acquiesced: Olofsson was delivered to the bank, along with the money and a blue Mustang. However, the police insisted that the now-plural captors leave the hostages behind when they drove off, which Olsson refused to do — it made him too easy a target.

Olofsson’s arrival calmed much of the tension inside the vault, however, and while he was reconnoitering the bank, he discovered Sven Säfstrom hiding in a stock room; Sven become the fourth hostage. But a stalemate had been reached with the police, who had no precedent for dealing with this type of situation.

Meanwhile, inside the vault, the hostages were forming bonds with their captors, who — at least since Olofsson’s arrival — had treated them humanely and even kindly. Excepting, of course, the constant threat of violence and death. They were given an outside phone line to contact their families, and food and other necessities were passed in to them through the barely open vault door.

From the hostages’ point of view inside the vault, only police action threatened to shift the balance toward violence; thus, the captors’ actions were keeping them alive.

Police actions on the third day of the stand-off didn’t help correct that point of view. On that day, wagering that the captors would not kill the hostages, a police officer snuck in and closed the vault door, cutting them off completely.

On the fifth day, police began the slow process of drilling a large hole through the reinforced top of the vault. They told Olsson they were drilling a hole large enough for him to surrender his weapon, but he knew better — with a hole in the ceiling, the police could gas them and force them out. In response, he placed nooses around the necks of his four hostages and tied the loose ends to the top row of safe deposit boxes. If the police were to gas the vault and the hostages were rendered unconscious, they would hang — reinforcing the idea that the captors were keeping the four alive, and the police were the real threat to the hostages’ lives.

The police then shifted to drilling a number of smaller holes into the vault, using the larger hole to drop in much-needed food for the hostages. On the sixth and final day of the stand-off, at a time when the hostages had been given a respite from being noosed, tear gas began to flood into the vault. The captors surrendered almost immediately, and the vault door was opened.

And then a strange thing happened — strange, at least, to the police and the media and the people around the world who had been enrapt by the conflict. The police ordered the captors to send the hostages out first, and the hostages refused. They believed that if they left, Olsson and Olofsson, alone in a vault, would be shot and killed by police out of sight of TV cameras and onlookers.

So the captors went first, surrendering themselves to the police. But not before the hostages themselves gave them hugs, shook their hands, promised to write. Later, some of them would even visit them in prison.

These acts gave rise to a new term in popular discourse: Within a month, the term Stockholm syndrome had appeared to describe the tendency of a hostage to overly sympathize and even bond with a captor. Within three years, it was used as a defense in court — in the case of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Stockholm syndrome isn’t a diagnosable mental disorder — it’s pop psychology, a shorthand for what is really a defense mechanism run amok.

Syndrome, by the way, comes from the Greek syndromos, which combines syn- “with” and dromos “a running, a course.” Literally “a running together,” it was initially “a place where several roads meet” and then “a number of symptoms occurring together.”

The -holm in Stockholm means “island,” and the stock comes from either stäk “bay” or stock “stake, pole.”

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  1. I used to deliver the “Post” as a boy during the depression years, (I am now 96). I didn’t know TSEP was still around until last year and I subscribed for a year and just renewed it. Of the many memberable features The Norman Rockwell covers had to be number one. They are still seen on calendars and other articles and I still chuckle when I see them.

    The fictional stories were also great such as Tug Boat Annie, national news 0f the 30’s :TWA;s China Clipper, fate of Amelia Earhart, Hitler’s rise, etc


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