Standing right behind the culprits. An unparalleled bank robbery

The unanticipated warmth shared between the victims and the assailants became prominently evident in the victims' media interviews. In astonishing unanimity, they aligned with the attackers and even expressed a desire to leave the bank alongside them.

Initially conceived as a straightforward bank heist, akin to a Hollywood blockbuster – albeit slightly more intricate due to the inclusion of hostages, a trope customary in American cinema – it transpired much like the silver screen. However, it did not go according to the criminals' plan. Both the offenders and the victims of the robbery ascended to stardom. Their faces graced the covers of nearly every publication across the globe, subsequently finding their place in the annals of esteemed psychology and criminology papers and study. Their conduct endures as a subject of contemporary analysis, with the term 'Stockholm syndrome' transcending linguistic boundaries.

The party has just begun!

On the 23rd of August, 1973, shortly after the bank's opening, a 30-year-old man sauntered into a branch of Sveriges Kreditbank, one of Sweden's major financial institutions. Concealed beneath his jacket lay a machine gun, a tool he was well-versed in employing. Clutched in his hand was a suitcase, containing an arsenal of ammunition, a plastic explosive charge, a knife, rope, and a walkie-talkie ensemble.

This individual was Janne-Erik Olsson, a fugitive from prison, a thief, a burglar, and an expert in explosives. As he later recounted to a journalist from the American weekly New Yorker, his plan entailed entering the bank in the morning and departing a few hours later, in the company of hostages, provided the police acceded to his demands.

Thus, Olsson stepped into the bank, discharged a volley from his machine gun into the ceiling. As the plaster cascaded to the ground with a resounding crash, he proclaimed in a booming voice, "The party has just begun!"

As later unveiled, this declaration was borrowed from an American crime saga involving an escaped inmate who robs a bank with dreams of a content life in Mexico. Interestingly, Olsson delivered these words in English, tinged with an American accent.

The initial efforts to overpower the assailant faltered. Janne exhibited no trepidation in wielding his firearm, extending beyond the mere intimidation of shooting the ceiling. This resulted in the injury of a police officer. Subsequent to this incident, the arriving police contingent assumed a more earnest stance, acceding to some of the robber's demands. In addition to the demanded sum – three million kroner (slightly less than a million dollars) – the criminal stipulated the release of his accomplice from prison and his delivery to the bank. This accomplice was Clark Olofsson, a convict charged with armed robbery and complicity in the murder of a law enforcement officer. He had already served six years of his sentence in Norrköping prison, located over 140 kilometres southwest of Stockholm.

The authorities obliged the criminal's requests. The robust, bearded blonde was transported to the bank by police officers, enabling his participation in the robbery. The duet now consisted of Janne and Clark. Nourished with sustenance and beer, although eluding capture in the provided swift automobile was currently unfeasible – at least for the time being.

Simultaneously, the police initiated the drilling of holes in the ceiling of the room housing the culprits and their four hostages. Among them were three women: Birgitta Lundblad, a 29-year-old bank employee, Kristin Ehnmark, a spirited 23-year-old from the loan division, and Elisabeth Oldgren, a 21-year-old teller. Then, a 25-year-old junior specialist named Sven Säfström joined the group. Following the initial gunfire, Sven sought refuge in a storage space designated for chequebooks – a place where the bandits eventually uncovered him.

Sober pre-election assessment

The scheme, though evoking the audacious flair of a comic book, was underpinned by psychological astuteness. Olsson later disclosed that he harboured a strong belief in the compliance of his demands. His conviction rested upon two primary pillars: firstly, a deeply ingrained aversion to violence prevalent in Sweden; and secondly, and arguably more crucially, he shrewdly capitalised on the impact of the upcoming general election in Sweden and the politicians' apprehension regarding a resolute anti-terrorist response that might imperil the hostages' safety, potentially resulting in harm or loss of life. The criminal's intuition was straightforward: Was I not offering my life in exchange for an asset of greater value?
On 23 August 1973, an armed man entered a branch of one of Sweden's largest banks, Sveriges Kreditbank. Photo by Tage Olsin - Own photograph, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Janne-Erik Olsson and Clark Olofsson strategically retreated, along with the four hostages, into a secure haven – the confines of a bank vault – following an initially lukewarm police response. Over hours and then extending into days, the felons had effectively 'settled in' with the four individuals who had been abruptly thrust into a life-threatening situation.

Olsson, despite the gravity of the situation, permitted the hostages intermittent communication with their loved ones. Birgitta, consumed by concern for her children, grew even more distressed when her attempts to reach them yielded no response, an occurrence that left her profoundly disoriented. In a poignant moment away from the prying camera lenses, Olsson gently brushed her cheek as he uttered, "Try again, don't give up." This gesture remained etched in Birgitta's memory.

Not Arsene Lupin, but...

However, the bandit harboured no intention of emulating the fictional character Arsene Lupin, renowned for his chivalrous demeanour towards women. The heist extended its grip, eventually attracting the attention of the government. The robbers managed to establish a telephone connection with Sweden's Prime Minister, Olof Palme. Olsson started a conversation and demanded that the hostages accompany him on an immediate evacuation, in accordance with their prearranged plan. Before the Prime Minister could formulate a response, he was met with Elisabeth's stifled screams on the other end, as the assailant seized her by the throat and tersely informed the head of state that he had a mere minute to comply, or else the young woman would meet her demise.

     Though this proved to be a warning, the authorities were beginning to understand that they were contending with a far cry from a refined gentleman thief. Olsson executed his actions with methodical precision, revealing that his paramount concern lay with his own fate. This perspective was reflected in the security measures he orchestrated to impede the police's advance. Just outside the door, he positioned Elisabeth, adjacent to an armed explosive device primed for detonation. However, it was a particular gesture by Olsson that left a more lasting impression on the hostage. On a frosty night within the chilly vault, she awoke to find the bandit draping his wool jacket around her. Months later, when recounting the experience to an American journalist, she remarked, "Janne was a mix of brutality and tenderness. I had known him for only a day when I felt his coat envelop me, yet I was convinced he had been that way my entire life."

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Amidst the hostages, the initial shock and fear began yielding space to entirely different sentiments. The police officer tasked with assessing the condition of the confined individuals reported to his superiors that all four not only refrained from beseeching him for help with pleading eyes, but treated him with outright hostility. In stark contrast, an atmosphere of ease, even camaraderie, seemed to envelop the hostages and their captors.

Subsequent events validated these observations, extending beyond just the women, who could be potentially accused of developing an infatuation with their dashing captors. Special emotions seemed to stir even in Sven, the lone male among the hostages, who proved equally vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the criminals conceived another stratagem to assert dominance over their captives and coerce their submission. Olsson candidly confessed to Sven his initial intent to eliminate him, though he subsequently altered his plan, opting instead to wound him in the leg as a demonstration of power. Sven, without offering resistance, accepted this proposition. Several months later, the only remnant he recalled from the incident was his impression that the robber was an amiable individual, seeking to limit the required aggression to a mere leg wound. Ultimately, Sven remained unscathed by injury.

On the flip side, Birgitta remained steadfast in her conviction, even after her departure from the bank, that the assailant wouldn't have singled her out as a hostage had he been aware of her role as a mother to two children.

"Let's escape with them!"

The unforeseen bond between the assault victims and the perpetrators was starkly evident in the victims' interactions with the media. These conversations unanimously saw them aligning with the attackers, sharing a mutual desire to break free from the confines of the bank alongside their captors.

A particularly unforgettable incident involved Kristina's telephone exchange with Prime Minister Palme. During the conversation, she fervently implored the politician to permit the bandits to exit the country with the money and the supplied weaponry, all while allowing the hostages to accompany them on their getaway. In response, the baffled Prime Minister clarified that such an arrangement was incompatible with the rule of law. Instead, he found himself subjected to a passionate diatribe by the young woman, who ardently argued that the primary threat to those ensnared within the bank was now posed by the police rather than the robbers.

Television audiences, who had avidly followed the live events unfolding in the heart of Stockholm, were left bewildered, struggling to make sense of a phenomenon that contradicted their preexisting knowledge and experiences.

Enveloped in a maze of emotion

Psychologists too, found themselves grappling with a complex puzzle.Justy a year prior, they had been assessing the harrowing attack executed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympic village, a tragic incident that led to the demise of 11 Israeli athletes taken hostage. Some had lost their lives amid the turmoil. And now, they were witnessing the captives form an unexpected rapport with their captors.

Naturally, the motivations and trajectories of the two attacks were fundamentally divergent, as were the intentions of the aggressors. Nonetheless, ever since the phenomenon known as the 'Stockholm syndrome' emerged, psychologists have been labouring to comprehend it.

First of all, psychologists underscored that the Stockholm robbers, though dangerous criminals, lacked a significantly developed propensity for killing. In line with the hostages themselves, their primary desire was to navigate the situation unharmed.

This explanation emerged as a prevailing rationale for the psychological mechanisms in play under such circumstances. In such scenarios, the victim often assumes a childlike role, becoming reliant on a maternal figure to satisfy their basic needs. Just as a child dependent on its mother acknowledges the necessity to comply, this submissive stance is accompanied by a genuine attachment borne out of the desire for security.

Dr. Anna Czerniak elucidates this dynamic in her paper 'Psychosocial Paradoxes of Violence' concerning the 'Stockholm syndrome', stating: "It is challenging to grapple with negative emotions (like fear or anger) towards someone who, simultaneously (as the perpetrator emphatically insists), holds the sole promise of preserving one's life and ensuring sustenance."

So, what prompts this regression in human behaviour? According to Prof. Marek Tokarz and Prof. Dariusz Doliński, several psychological mechanisms underpin these attitudes. One key aspect is the "submissive-inducing emotional swing effect."
This is what the interior of the bank looked like when abandoned by criminals and their victims. Photo: Keystone Pictures USA / Zuma Press / Forum
In the context of the Stockholm bank ordeal, the hostages admitted to being swept up in the criminals' emotional rollercoaster, as the perpetrators themselves experienced profound emotional fluctuations. On one day, the women received gestures of subtle care from their captors, like Olsson draping Elisabeth with a jacket as she shivered in her sleep, consoling a friend struggling to reach her family, or equitably dividing dwindling food supplies to ensure everyone had their share. Conversely, the conditions within the vault were dire, with necessities like physiological needs being thrown out the window.

The bandits also wielded threats to harm the hostages in the event of a police gas attack. Indeed, all four hostages already had nooses draped loosely around their necks, easily tightened in the face of an assault by specialised forces. Interestingly, Olsson rationalised this to them, explaining that such action would be in their best interest, as the gas could potentially induce irreversible brain changes, forcing the victims to grapple with the aftermath.

Another psychological mechanism driving this attitude is the 'norm of reciprocity', whereby people experience gratitude not just when they receive something tangible (like food) but also when something intangible is spared (like life). Sven, the sole male among the hostages, found himself sympathising with the bandits when they informed him of their decision to forgo murder, opting instead to wound him in the leg as a means to impress the police.

All those ensnared within the confines of the bank adhered to the often harsh directives, which were occasionally softened by sage counsel and displays of empathy. Furthermore, they collectively exhibited comprehension for the bandits' predicament.

Psychologists elucidate that in such scenarios, a cascade of processes is set in motion that typifies "a small group bound by the shared dimensions of time, place, and destiny, juxtaposed against an external antagonistic group: us – the insiders, versus them – those outside." This dynamic was particularly manifest during Kristin's discourse with Prime Minister Olof Palme, where the young woman asserted that her sole confidants were the assailants, and she harboured apprehensions of mortal peril from the external forces devising strategies for an assault.

Reciprocity of Sentiments

Initially, certain psychologists contended that analogous circumstances prompt a phenomenon wherein the victim aligns their identity with that of the persecutor. Anna Freud, whose studies encompassed the behaviour of concentration camp inmates, made similar observations.
However, Frank Ochberg, an esteemed American psychiatrist and a world-renowned expert in post-traumatic stress disorder treatment, as well as the author of the inaugural scientific analysis of the Stockholm events for Scotland Yard, discerns a distinction between these two concepts. "These individuals don't necessarily adopt their aggressor's aggression, as is seen in cases of equivocation. Ironically, they are genuinely intertwined with each other. They share an exceptional sentiment that persists even after being kidnapped and imprisoned," the psychiatrist said in an interview.

Another hallmark of the 'Stockholm syndrome' is the mutual reciprocity of feelings. This dynamic is leveraged by police negotiators confronting this type of crime, as they endeavor to foster these sentiments on both sides – for the victims and the captors. Such a unique bond heightens the hostages' prospects of survival.

Frank Ochberg supported his theory with instances from his experience as a negotiator. In Indonesia, terrorists held hostages in a school, and at a certain juncture, one of the abductors suffered a panic attack that resembled a heart ailment. "I requested the terrorists to monitor the patient's blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs. They were to communicate his condition to us over the radio. I aimed for the captors to fulfil this role, cultivating the bond reminiscent of the 'Stockholm syndrome'," the psychiatrist recalls. Unfortunately, a medical student among the hostages assumed responsibility, disrupting the desired psychological mechanism's implementation. "We couldn't prevent her from intervening, as we sought to establish a specific psychological dynamic. Regrettably, our attempt to alter the terrorists' attitude towards the hostages through this tactic failed," he concedes.

Several months later, Janne-Erik Olsson admitted to contemplating the idea of killing one of the hostages. He even divulged that police officers he later conversed with confirmed this grim truth. "They informed me that even killing just one hostage would compel the authorities to meet all my demands. They needn't have told me; I was well aware," he elucidated from prison a few months after the incident. With a tinge of resentment evident in his tone, he added, "It's the hostages' fault. They complied with every instruction I gave them. If they hadn't, I might not be sitting here now. Why didn't any of them attempt to resist me? They made it challenging to carry out any killing. Day by day, we were forced to coexist, much like goats, in these squalid conditions."

In conclusion, he rhetorically questioned, "Who among them could I have taken the life of? Elisabeth, vulnerable and tearful? Kristin, brimming with spirit, capable of addressing Palme the way she did? Sven, an honourable, courageous man? Birgitta, who couldn't erase thoughts of her two children? Our options were limited to familiarising ourselves with each other."

–Sławomir Cedzyński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Roberto Galea
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