Stockholm Syndrome – what is it?

The names Birgitta Lundblad, Elisabeth Oldgren, Sven Säfström and Kristin Ehnmark are not known to many people. However, they played an important role in the concept called Stockholm Syndrome.

On 23 August 1973, the four were taken hostage in Kreditbanken in Stockholm, by Jan-Erik Olsson – who was later joined by a former prison mate. Six days later when the siege ended, it became evident that the hostages had developed a positive relationship with their captors. They defended them, saying they were, for example, kind, generous and thoughtful. One of them even appealed on their behalf to Prime Minister Olof Palme. They refused to testify, and started a campaign to raise money for their kidnappers’ defense.

The syndrome was identified by criminologist Nils Bejerot. Psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg went on to define the syndrome as a situation where victims form positive attachment to their oppressors. He developed the process that people suffering from Stockholm Syndrome go through.

Firstly, there is an initial experience that is surprising and terrifying. The victims are certain they are going to die. Then they experience a type of infantilisation – where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission. Small acts of kindness – such as being given food – prompts a primitive gratitude for the gift of life. The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.

One of the Swedish hostages, Elisabeth Oldgren was allowed to leave the vault that had become their prison 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.

One famous case of Stockholm Syndrome is Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by revolutionary militants in 1974. She appeared to develop sympathy with her captors and even became their partner in crime.

Natascha Kampusch was another case. Kidnapped and molested as a 10-year-old by Wolfgang Priklopil, she was incarcerated in a basement for eight years, but yet she mourned his death and lit a candle for him. Years after her escape in 2006 she still carried a photo of him in her wallet.

Today, psychologists see Stockholm Syndrome arising in other situations than kidnapping: abusive marriages, trafficking and sports coaching, for example. In popular culture, the excellent Netflix series ‘Le Casa De Papa’ depicts a robbery in the National Treasury and the ‘Síndrome de Estocolmo’ that several hostages experience.

In 2019, a film called Stockholm was released. Starring Ethan Hawke and Noomi Rapace it loosely tells the story of those fateful 6 days in 1973.

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