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How conversation works in a hostage drama

A new dissertation from Umeå University in Sweden deals with communication in extreme situations. The example is the occupation of the West German embassy in 1975 and the telephone conversations that were carried out between relatives of the hostages, the Swedish minister of justice, a German embassy official, and one of the occupiers.

How does a social situation actually function when the lives of both the players and others are under threat? Many of us remember April 24, 1975, when six members of the Red Army Fraction occupied and blew up the West German embassy in Stockholm.

Conversation researcher Gregor von der Heiden analyzed the telephone conversations that were carried out with one of the occupiers. On the basis of this analysis, he draws conclusions regarding what is necessary for communication in a sensitive situation where the interests of the parties are irreconcilable.

The dissertation shows how conversations during crises are characterized by the fear that the situation will get out of hand and an inability to predict the reactions of the interlocutor. The pressure to act is great, and there are palpable risks. The gravity of the situation forces the participants to communicate exceptionally well.

"Crises are extreme situations in people's lives, and in such situations everyday commonplaces seem to be questioned," says Gregor von der Heiden. "Conversations in a crisis require the greatest concentration and presence of mind."

In his study, Gregor von der Heiden reconstructed the communicative processes that took place during the embassy occupation. The parties in a conversation had strongly contradictory interests and motives, but, despite this, they put together a shared picture of reality through their communicative actions. The interaction between two of the key players in the first stages of the crisis can even be characterized as a coalition. Why was this not maintained, and why did the situation escalate?

Dissertation: Gespräche in einer Krise. Analyse von Telefonaten mit einem RAF-Mitglied während der Okkupation der westdeutschen Botschaft in Stockholm 1975

For further information or an interview, please contact Gregor von der Heiden, tel +46 (0)90-786 63 13 or e-mail

Pressofficer Helena Vejbrink; or +46-90 786 93 79

Helena Vejbrink | idw
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