What is Stockholm Syndrome?

The robbery in the city centre bank (Kreitbanken), took place on 23rd August 1973 and was carried out by Swedish criminal Jan Erik Olsson. Armed with a submachine gun, Olsson held four hostages at gunpoint in one of the bank’s vaults for a total of six days. He proceeded to make various demands to the police and government, including demanding a known criminal (and friend of Olsson) Clark Olofsson to be brought to him, along with asking for three million Swedish krona, a vehicle and two weapons. During the robbery, Olsson shot at police officers numerous times, injuring one in the hand and another in the face and arms.

The government was forced to collaborate with Olssen and agreed to deliver Clarck Olofsson to him. From this point, further negotiations continued between the pair and the police. 

After a six day standoff, the police decided to take action by gassing bank, which was followed by a swift surrender by the hostage takers. Fortunately, no one was injured. 

Both Olsson and Olofsson were eventually convicted and sentenced, however charges against Olofsson were later dropped. Ironically Olofsson went on to take part in further criminal activity, whereas Jan Olsson, after serving 10 years in prison, left fully rehabilitated and acquired a legion of ‘fans’.

During the standoff and after its conclusion, it became evident that the captors developed a sense of empathy towards Olsson and Olofsson, some even expressed compassion towards them. One of the hostages, Kristin Ehnmark, not only demonstrated fear for the police, but also began to fear the idea of being ‘rescued’, as she expressed she felt ‘safer’ with her captors.

Throughout Ollsson’s and Olofsson’s trial, all the victims remained reluctant to testify against them. It became apparent, they all demonstrated similar thought processes, they’d become more terrified of the police than the criminals who had held them captive at gunpoint for almost a week. The criminologist Nils Bejerot proceeded to coin this behaviour demonstrated by the hostages ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ - a term that is now well-known.

The behaviour of the hostages in Stockholm, though seemingly strange, was not a unique incident.

One of the most famous examples of a victim with Stockholm Syndrome is Patty Hearst, a media heiress kidnapped in 1974. Patricia ‘Patty’ Hearst, granddaughter of the communication magnate, William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by the American left-wing militant group, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Desperate to see Patricia Hearst returned safely, the Hearst family agreed to the demands of the terrorist group and gave the SLA six million dollars.

Two months after the money was delivered, Hearst was found helping her captors rob a bank and expressed support for the SLA’s militant cause. It was also later discovered that she had changed her name to Tania, completely detaching herself from her previous life.

An explanation of such ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ behaviours is described by Bejerot as being present most frequently in people who have been exposed to some form of abuse. For example, being held in a hostage situation, indoctrinated in a cult, physically, emotionally or sexually abused as a child, prisoners of war, victims of domestic violence or captured in concentration camps. 

It is believed that the cooperation between hostage or victim and the perpetrator is due primarily to sharing the common goal of resolving the situation without getting hurt. It is the lack of control that the victim seemingly has over a particular situation that leads them to cooperate with their captors. This then presents the captors as perceived ‘saviours’, as they become to be viewed as the only ones who can prevent the escalation of the scenario (despite this being untrue). As a result, the victim begins to identify with the motivations of the criminal and often is found to collaborate, help or at the very least empathise with them. 

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