The Origins Of Stockholm Syndrome

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It’s likely you’re already aware that Stockholm Syndrome is a term used to describe what happens when a kidnapped victim becomes emotionally attached to his or her captor. Do you know the origin of this condition?

The Swedish bank where this took place

The phrase Stockholm Syndrome was coined back in 1973 after a well televised bank robbery which gripped the entire country of Sweden. Armed with explosives and a submachine gun, a well-known paroled convict by the name of Jan-Erik Olsson robbed one of the largest banks in Stockholm, Sweden. He walked in moments after the bank opened, screamed “the party has only started”, shot at the ceiling, and forced 4 of the bank’s young (and attractive) employees inside the bank’s vault. The hostages consisted of 3 women named Birgitta Lundblad, Elisabeth Oldgren, Kristin Ehnmark, and a man, Sven Safstrom. The victims remained in this vault from August 23rd till the 28th.

Olsson made his demands, the first of which being that his buddy, Clark Olofsson, must be released from prison to help him out; negotiators obliged. Olofsson was released from prison and driven to the bank where the two convicts reunited. Olsson wanted 3 million dollars in Swedish currency, this was quickly given – but police weren’t as quick to give in to the rest of the demands: 2 bulletproof vests, helmets, and a fast vehicle to get away in.

At first the hostages were absolutely terrified, but within a day the group became very close friends; the 4 came to love and trust these 2 men beyond reason, and those feelings were reciprocated.
At one point the hostages left the vault to use the restroom and they had a chance to safely run to police. The hostages refused, went straight back to their captors. Police noticed that the hostages were outright hostile with them – not their captors!

A couple of days in, the robbers told their male captive, Sven, that they had to shoot him. They said that they’d allow him to get drunk before they shot him in the leg, and they promised that the bullet would not go through the bone. Being nice guys, they promised not to kill him. Well, it’s not surprising that Sven freaked the hell out – he didn’t want to be shot, and the robbers decided not to go through with that plan. Sven later recounted an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to them for offering to shoot him in the leg!

Hostage Kristin would later recall her frustration at Sven, thinking he should’ve gone through with it; that he was such a wimp. Kristin says she still feels bad over the way she treated Sven over this.

During negotiations, Kristin spoke on the telephone to the prime minister, Olof Palme. She begged for her captives to be allowed to go free – and that she and the other 3 be allowed to leave with them! During this call she stated: “I’m not the least bit afraid of Clark and the other guy, I’m afraid of the police. Do you understand? I trust them completely. Believe it or not, but we’ve had a really nice time here”. Even when Olsson used her as a shield and placed a bomb at Kristin’s feet, she did not turn against him – she had complete trust in these men. And they had been nice to her- at one point when she was feeling claustrophobic Olssen tied a rope around her neck and allowed her to walk around. Quite the gentleman!

On the 6th day, police decided enough was enough; they broke through the ceiling of the vault and dropped some tear gas inside to disarm the men. It was at this time that Olsson and Olofsson surrendered.

Olsson after surrendering

Once released, the hostages were continued vehemently defended both Olsson and Olofsson – every bit of this was law enforcement’s fault! Kristin even went so far as to say that the tear gas used on them was attempted murder! The 4 sang their captor’s praises, and absolutely refused to testify against them; they not only pleaded for their captors release from prison but they even raised money for decent defense lawyers!

Nonetheless, Olsson was sentenced to ten years for the situation, and Olofsson received 6 years for his part in the fiasco. The victims remained in contact, sharing letters with their captors for years and years.

Olssen would later say: “It was the hostages’ fault. They did everything I told them to. If they hadn’t, I might not be here now. Why didn’t any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other.”

So, as for the psychology behind this: the victim feels like they’re going to die when first taken captive; maybe they’ve been tied up, threatened, and often assaulted, and basic human rights such as using the restroom and food/water may be denied. As you can imagine, the situation is extremely traumatic. When the captive is finally given back those rights which most of us take for granted, they feel very grateful. Then, over time, the victim will come to understand the reason for the hostages situation, and empathize with his or her captor; often they’ll even take on the captor’s mission as their own. Together victim and criminal will bond over injustices in the world – it becomes an “us against them” type of mentality. Once released often the victim will feel like they truly love their abuser, and that feeling is usually reciprocated.

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