On 23 August 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson walked into a bank on Norrmalmstorg square in Stockholm, Sweden, just after opening. He was disguised with a dark wig and toy glasses and spoke English to make it difficult to be identified.
Olsson took four hostages from the Sveriges Kreditbank staff, three women that he selected and a man who had hidden in the bank vault that would become their home that week. The six-day siege was “one of the longest such episodes on record.” News organizations reportedly camped outside the bank.
Late on 29 August, policemen flooded the bank vault with tear gas after they had drilled holes into its ceiling. Concurrently, three police officers waited outside the vault entrance and directed Olsson to open the interior door.
Olsson complied as fast as he could. Disarmed at last, he listened to the police shout from above and through the crack, “Hostages first! Hostages first!” But there was no movement in the vault. The hostages kept their ground, rejecting rescue. Defiantly, Kristin shouted back, “No, Jan and Clark go first—you’ll gun them down if we do!”
With that defense of the criminals, the hostages demonstrated an allegience to their captors that would eventually be dubbed “Stockholm syndrome.”
It wasn’t the first time.
During negotiations, Prime Minister Olof Palme became directly involved. In a phone call, bank employee and hostage Kristin Ehnmark told the PM:
I think you are sitting there playing chequers 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.
Olsson had allowed Elisabeth Oldgren to leave the vault and wander around the bank because she was claustrophobic. She called the gesture “very kind” even though Olsson had placed a rope around her neck.
Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejerot called this bond between hostage-and-captor the Norrmalmstorg syndrome, reflecting where the bank was located. Outside of Sweden, it became known as Stockholm syndrome.
Psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg reportedly defined Stockholm syndrome for the FBI and Scotland Yard. Although not included in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychologists “believe that the bond is initially created when a captor threatens a captive’s life, deliberates, and then chooses not to kill the captive.”
In 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. She spent the first 57 days in a closet, bound and blindfolded. Ten weeks after her kidnapping, she helped her kidnappers rob a bank.
In a tape played at a radio station, she denounced her biological family and announced that she would “never choose to live the rest of my life surrounded by pigs like the Hearsts.” In addition to castigating her roots, she was fearful of the authorities who were looking for her.
Stockholm syndrome was not a successful defense strategy, however. Hearst was arrested, tried, and convicted. Her sentence of seven years in prison was reduced when President Jimmy Carter commuted it after two years. President Bill Clinton would issue a pardon in 2001.
Today, some psychologists argue that the bond in domestic violence cases is similar: “emotional bonding that is in reality a survival strategy for victims of emotional and physical abuse.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a documented psychiatric disorder that may result from an emotionally traumatic event such as that experienced by these hostages. Although the diagnosis originated with combat, PTSD “can occur in all people, of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and at any age.”