Gerald Nagler, human rights activist since the Cold War, dies at 92

Gerald Nagler, a prominent human rights activist who made risky Cold War forays into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to lend his support to dissidents including Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov and the future Czech President Vaclav Havel died on July 23 at his home in Stockholm. He was 92 years old.

His death was announced by Stockholm-based civil rights activists, the successor to the Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which Mr Nagler founded in 1982. No cause of death was given.

Mr. Nagler’s influence on international human rights efforts and priorities has spanned more than four decades, from documenting the struggles of opposition groups to the era of the Curtain of fight against anti-Semitism amid a rise in nativist and far-right political forces in recent years.

During the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia split, Mr. Nagler worked to help civil society groups and independent media across ethnic and religious divides, including the Belgrade-based B92 radio, which challenged propaganda broadcast by Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian allies targeting Bosnian Muslims and others.

Mr Nagler said he remained “very optimistic” even as political opposition and freedom of expression were under serious threat in places like Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. What encouraged he, he said, was the international outcry: “Human rights today are on everyone’s agenda.

Mr. Nagler’s entry into rights activism began with an unexpected request in 1977. Morton Narrowean American-born rabbi and head of Stockholm’s Jewish community, suggested his friend apply for a visa to visit Soviet Jews seeking to reach the West known as refuseniks.

Narrowe believed that Mr. Nagler was the ideal person for a study trip and to open channels with the Jewish community in Moscow. He had no experience in international politics or human rights campaigning and worked in the family optical equipment business. The rabbi guessed that Mr. Nagler would not attract much attention from the KGB and other Soviet guards.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea, because I don’t speak Russian, I don’t speak Hebrew, I barely understand Yiddish. So I said, ‘That’s not my thing,’” Mr Nagler recalled in a 2002 interview. “But [Narrowe] said, ‘I think you should go and see.’

During the trip, Mr. Nagler was able to avoid major contact with the authorities while meeting activists, including Sakharov, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, and his wife, Yelena Bonner. Mr. Nagler will remain among Sakharov’s closest contacts in the West.

“You learn so much about courage and ethics and morals,” he later said.

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In 1982, Mr. Nagler left the business world to establish the Swedish Helsinki Committee. It all started as an idea around a kitchen table with his wife, Monica Nagler Wittgenstein, a Swedish journalist and scholar of German literature. The name of the group refers to the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 agreement signed by 35 nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, which sets out broad principles on issues such as freedom of the press, scientific cooperation and human rights.

“We had no budget, we had no staff, we had no office,” Nagler said in a statement. video 2020 produced by Civil Rights Defenders. “But we had a mission.”

Hans Gerald Nagler was born on December 10, 1929 in Vienna, the son of a Jewish merchant who moved the family to Stockholm in 1931 amid growing anti-Semitism during the interwar period.

Mr Nagler often recalled his family’s assistance to people fleeing Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied areas during the war and later providing refuge to concentration camp survivors reaching Sweden after 1945.

“Of course it plays a role that I’m Jewish,” he said in 2002 of his place among human rights activists, “because if something goes wrong somewhere, Jews will probably be the first ones [in] line to pay the price.

In the 1980s, Mr. Nagler established ties with the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa in Poland and with Havel and the Charter 77 rights movement in what was then Czechoslovakia. During a visit with Havel to his summer dacha outside Prague, Mr Nagler assumed the bedrooms were being bugged by secret police and suggested they walk around for more privacy.

Havel said it didn’t matter. He pointed to a small cabin nearby, recalls Mr. Nagler. It was a “listening station” that constantly monitored every move of the playwright, who would become Czechoslovakia’s last president in 1989 when anti-communist groups took over. Havel resigned in 1992 just before the country broke in two; he then returned as President of the new Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

On another trip to Prague in the early 1980s, Mr. Nagler had planned to participate in a meeting with writers, scholars and others seen by the government as enemies. The day before the rally, Mr. Nagler received a note that the host hotel “suddenly had to fix all of their windows or something,” said his longtime colleague Benedicte Berner, former president of Civil Rights Defenders and long-time colleague of Mr. Nagler. , in a telephone interview.

The group ended up sneaking into a small apartment.

“There were probably 30 or 40 people in a small place,” Berner said. “That says a lot about [Mr. Nagler]. He faced many obstacles but always found a way.

Until 1992, Mr. Nagler also led the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, an umbrella organization of more than 40 advocacy groups around the world. In 2009, the Swedish Helsinki Committee changed its name to Civil Rights Defenders.

Survivors include his 65-year-old wife, who is a great-niece of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; and three children, Pamela and Camilla, both from Stockholm, and Nicholas from New York.

Mr Nagler was fond of quoting Israeli writer Amos Oz and his “teaspoon attitude”.

“We all have a teaspoon,” Mr. Nagler explained. “We should take some water and put it on the fire. It seems [like] it has no effect, but if there are a lot of teaspoons it might have an effect.

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