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Most people know the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome” from the numerous high-profile kidnapping and hostage cases – usually involving women – in which it has been cited.

The term is probably most associated with Patty Hearst, the Californian newspaper heiress who was kidnapped by revolutionary militants in 1974. She appeared to develop sympathy with her captors and joined them in a robbery. She was eventually caught and received a prison sentence.

But Hearst’s defence lawyer Bailey claimed that the 19-year-old had been brainwashed and was suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome” – a term that had been coined the year previous to explain the apparently irrational feelings of some captives for their captors.

The phrase was first used at the conclusion of a bank robbery at a branch of Kreditbanken in Stockholm when four employees (Birgitta Lundblad, Elisabeth Oldgren, Kristin Ehnmark and Sven Safstrom) were taken hostage by 32-year-old career-criminal Jan-Erik Olsson. Olsson demanded that his friend Clark Olofsson, who had been convicted of multiple armed robberies, be brought to the bank along with 3 million Swedish Kronor (about $730,000 at1973 values), two guns, bulletproof vests, helmets, and a fast car.

The Swedish authorities agreed but continued to negotiate and pressurise Olsson and when he finally agreed to release the hostages after six days, it became evident that they had formed some kind of positive relationship with their captors – Olsson and Olofsson.

So, what went on in the Stockholm bank that caused the hostages to experience positive feelings towards their captors, despite fearing for their lives?

In a 2009 interview with Radio Sweden, Kristin Ehnmark explained: “It’s some kind of a context you get into when all your values, the morals you have change in some way.” It was Ehnmark who, according to reports, built up the strongest relationship with Olsson. There were even reports (untrue) afterwards that the pair had become engaged.

In one phone call from the bank’s vault to the country’s prime minister Olof Palme, Ehnmark begged to be allowed to leave the bank with the kidnappers. One of Olsson’s demands had been the delivery of a getaway car in which he planned to escape with the hostages but the authorities had refused.

Telling Palme that she was “very disappointed” with him, Ehnmark said: “I think you are sitting there playing games 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. But you know, Olof, what I’m scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die.”

American journalist Daniel Lang interviewed everyone involved in the drama a year later for the New Yorker magazine. It paints the most extensive picture of how captors and captives interacted.

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. On one occasion claustrophia sufferer Elisabeth Oldgren was allowed to leave the prison vault where the hostages were held – but only with a rope fixed around her neck. She said that at the time she thought it was “very kind” of Olsson to allow her to move around the floor of the bank.

Safstrom said he even felt gratitude when Olsson told him he was going to shoot him in order to prove to the police that he meant business – but added he would make sure he didn’t kill him and would let him get drunk first.

“Stockholm Syndrome” is typically applied to explain the ambivalent feelings of the captives, but in fact the evidence shows that the feelings of the captors towards their hostages changes too. Olsson later commented that whilst at the beginning of the siege he could “easily” have killed the hostages, as the siege continued he changed his attitude towards them and developed a concern for their welfare.

FBI protocols for siege or hostage negotiators encourage strategies to enable perpetrators to display positive feelings toward captives as this can hugely improve the chances of hostage survival.

Category: Historic Events

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