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The Six-Day Hostage Standoff That Gave Rise to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’

Although it is widely known, ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is not recognized by the APA

The former bank where four hostages and two robbers spent six days holed up in the vault. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

It’s become a familiar pop culture reference–but the roots of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ were anything but entertaining.

On this day in 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson took four bank workers hostage at the Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, Sweden. Olsson had intended only to rob the bank at gunpoint and make off with his takings, but the situation turned into a six-day standoff. During that time, the four hostages he took developed a bond that took a long time to unravel.

The hostage-taking must have been terrifying: Olsson walked into the bank with a jacket over his arm, looking like a normal customer. But underneath that jacket was a loaded submachine gun, writes Christopher Klein for History.com. He “fired at the ceiling and, disguising his voice to sound like an American, cried out in English, ‘The party has just begun!’” Klein writes.

After he took four hostages, he made his demands: more than $700,000, a getaway car and the release of his imprisoned "colleague" Clark Olofsson. “Within hours, the police delivered Olsson’s fellow convict, the ransom and even a blue Ford Mustang with a full tank of gas,” Klein writes. But they wouldn’t allow the robber to leave with the hostages, sparking a standoff. The police got a phone in so the hostages and their captors could communicate with the outside world.

In the days that followed, the world watched as police tried to figure out what to do. By the second day, The New York Times reported, at least one hostage “was more critical of the authorities than of the robbers and accused the Government of ‘playing with our lives.’”

“We are more afraid of the policemen than these two boys,” said Kristin Ehnmark, according to the Times. “We are discussing, and, believe it or not, having a rather good time here. Why can’t they let the boys drive off with us in the car.”

When Olsson treated the captives well, “we could think of him as an emergency God,” said Sven Safstrom, the only male hostage, writes the BBC. He and the three other hostages–Ehnmark and two women named Birgitta Lundblad and Elisabeth Oldgren–sat down with The New Yorker  a year later to talk about their experience. "The hostages spoke of being well treated by Olsson, and at the time it appeared that they believed they owed their lives to the criminal pair,” the BBC reports. 

But none of this was yet known when police drilled a hole in the vault where the hostages and their captors were on August 29, dropping tear gas in and ending the standoff. On August 30, the Times reported that the hostages were “in shock” and being treated at a psychiatric clinic. “A bulletin read by the physician in charge, Dr. Lennart Ljonggren, described their condition as similar to victims of the shock of war,” Times reporter Henry Kamm wrote. The hostages–in particular Ehnmark–were continuing to display “a bond of friendship” with their captors. Later, a psychologist who had worked with the police during the kidnapping coined the term “Stockholm Syndrome,” although it didn’t come into wide use until the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1975.

“The survival instinct is at the heart of Stockholm syndrome,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica. “Victims live in enforced dependence and interpret rare or small acts of kindness in the midst of horrible conditions as good treatment.” However, even though Stockholm syndrome is a widely understood cultural term and one that is used (at least casually) by psychologists, it isn't part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or other important texts establishing known psychiatric ailments.

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