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

Source: The Washington Post / / By Brian Murphy /

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

Human rights activist Gerald Nagler in 2003 at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. (Civil Rights Defenders)

His death was announced by the Stockholm-based Civil Rights Defenders, 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 spanned more than four decades, from documenting the struggles of opposition groups during the Iron Curtain era to fighting antisemitism amid a rise in nativist and extreme-right political forces in recent years.

During the Balkan wars in the 1990s as Yugoslavia splintered, Mr. Nagler worked to aid civil society groups and independent media across ethnic and religious divides, including the Belgrade-based B92 radio, which challenged propaganda spread 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 free expression were severely threatened in places including Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. What encouraged him, he said, was the international outcry:

Human rights today is on everyone’s agenda.

Mr. Nagler’s entry into rights activism began with an unexpected request in 1977. Morton Narrowe, a U.S.-born rabbi and leader of Stockholm’s Jewish community, suggested that his friend seek a visa to visit Soviet Jews seeking to reach the West and known as refuseniks.

Narrowe thought Mr. Nagler was the perfect fit for a fact-finding trip and to open channels with Moscow’s Jewish community. He had no experience in international politics or human rights campaigns, and was working in his family’s optical equipment company. The rabbi guessed that Mr. Nagler wouldn’t raise much attention from the KGB and other Soviet minders.

I didn’t think that was a good idea, because I don’t speak Russian, I don’t speak Hebrew, I hardly understand Yiddish. So I said, ‘This is not my thing,’

Mr. Nagler recalled in a 2002 interview.

But [Narrowe] said, ‘I think you should go and look.’

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

You learn so much about courage, ethics and morals,

he later said. [How Andrei Sakharov remains a force in Putin’s Russia]

In 1982, Mr. Nagler left the business world to establish the Swedish Helsinki Committee. It began as an idea at a kitchen table with his wife, Monica Nagler Wittgenstein, a Swedish journalist and authority on German literature. The group’s name refers to the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 accord signed by 35 nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, that set out broad principles on issues including press freedoms, scientific cooperation and human rights.

The Vaclav Havel Center