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

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

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.

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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.

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

Hans Gerald Nagler was born Dec. 10, 1929, in Vienna, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper who moved the family to Stockholm in 1931 amid growing antisemitism during the interwar years.

Mr. Nagler often recalled his family’s providing aid for people fleeing Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied areas during the war and later offering a refuge for concentration camps survivors reaching Sweden after 1945.

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

In the 1980s, Mr. Nagler built ties with Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland and with Havel and the Charter 77 rights movement in what was then Czechoslovakia. During one visit with Havel at his summer dacha outside Prague, Mr. Nagler presumed the rooms were bugged by the secret police and suggested they take a walk for privacy.

Havel said it didn’t matter. He pointed to a small cottage nearby, Mr. Nagler recalled. It was a “listening station” that constantly monitored every movement by the playwright, who would become the last president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 as anti-communist groups took charge. 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.

During another trip to Prague in the early 1980s, Mr. Nagler planned to take part in a meeting with writers, academics and others seen by the government as enemies. The night before the gathering, Mr. Nagler received a note that the host hotel “suddenly had to repair all its windows or something like that,” said his longtime colleague Benedicte Berner, a former chairwoman of Civil Rights Defenders and Mr. Nagler’s longtime colleague, in a telephone interview.

The group ended up squeezing into a small apartment.

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

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

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, who is a great-niece of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; and three children, Pamela and Camilla, both of Stockholm, and Niclas of New York.

Mr. Nagler liked to quote the Israeli writer Amos Oz and his “teaspoon attitude.”

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

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