Gerald Nagler Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Human Rights Movement and the Helsinki Process: Conversation with 
    Gerald Nagler, Chair of the Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights; 4/30/02 
    by Harry Kreisler

Page 2 of 3

Human Rights Work

When did you decide to take up human rights as a vocation?

Things just happen in life. A friend who happens to be the chief rabbi in Sweden, who is an American, who has, by the way, revitalized the Jewish life in Sweden fantastically -- and I point out that he is my friend, not my rabbi, because I am not religious, and he would never ask me to come to synagogue or anything like that. But one day he asked me if I could get involved in the situation for the [Russian] Jews, the so-called refuseniks.

And his name?

Morton Narrowe.

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." But he said, "I think you should go and look."

This would have been what year?

That must have been 1977. And I went.

To the Soviet Union?

To the Soviet Union. And I had the great privilege of meeting these fantastic personalities,  Andrei Sakharov, Jelena Bonner, Meiman, Lerner, etc., who made it very clear to me how serious the situation was. You can compare it in many ways to the situation in general discrimination and in discrimination of the Jews in Germany after 1933.

Describe for us your first meeting with Sakharov. Did you know who he was, and his importance? Was he internationally known at the time?

Yes, he was already. That was why I was asked by friends, that "if you go, you should meet so and so, and maybe he will explain to you the situation," which [the refuseniks] did. They have a fantastic overview of the political/social situation in their country, because they had this network which scientists have.

Now, Sakharov and the others -- let's explicate their argument. He sensitized you to the political condition of people like himself and of the Jews in the Soviet Union. Was he asking your aid in calling this to the world's attention?

First, of all, I think we should make a distinction; there were really two groups. One was the refusenik group. Those were very distinguished, and also less distinguished, but the leading group was this group of scientists, who felt the discrimination, and whose children were not allowed to be educated, etc.

And these were Jews.

These were Jews, yes. And they, the so-called refuseniks, wanted to leave the country. By having declared this, and having asked for exit visas which they were refused, they said, "We have no moral right to ask for changes in the system. We want our rights to leave the country. Let us go. Let us go home." That was their fact.

Then there were the dissident groups. They wanted to fight, and they did fight for human right, civil rights, democracy, a change in the system. Some of these two groups overlapped. But still, in thinking, we should distinguish between the two groups.

Now, after this meeting, what did you then go back to your country and do about it?

We organized ourselves in Sweden and in many other countries, but Sweden was a good base because it's neutral, it's close to the Soviet Union, easy and relatively cheap to travel, and we were, in a way, in a privileged situation in relation to the authorities in the Soviet Union. So we organized ourselves in order to try to, as you say, put it to the attention of the world. We concentrated on three groups: scientists, politicians, and lawyers --prominent people in these three fields. And in order to make [people] aware, we took them along to visit.

The scientists played an important role because they kept alive this international network of scientists, which they already originally had. They made sort of "kitchen seminars" in their field, because they needed those intellectual stimulants, because they had all lost their jobs and had been kicked out. So it was a good way for them to know that people [were thinking] of [them], and gave them the intellectual gymnastic.

So the scientists that you brought over ran tutorials.

That was the scientists.  The politicians we brought in order for them to put it on the political agenda back home in Sweden's Parliament, and the Council of Europe, and other international organizations. And the lawyers, in order to do the same thing also in the lawyer community.

So when you came back, was there an infrastructure that you created to do this, or was it just friends?

It wasn't me, we were a whole group ...

A whole group, right.

... who created such an infrastructure, and it was created in many other countries. But I think that Sweden played a rather important role in this.

And also, there was another thing, and that was more on the Jewish side, to bring Jewish books, prayer books, and so on. Those had to be smuggled in.

Now, the organization in Sweden was essentially a collection of committees that existed in these various countries -- or were the committees in, for example, Czechoslovakia, was that run by the dissidents there themselves?

Let's talk first about this, let's say, the Jewish part. That was, of course, only in the West. Committees which supported the refuseniks sent people, they gave the moral, political, also a little legal support, and they bought the books. Some of this was initiated in Israel, but all these committees were independent.

The dissident movement, from my point of view, that came in later. Because I had been involved in this support for the refuseniks for a couple of years, I was approached by Aryeh Neier, who is now the president of the Soros organization, but at that time was in charge of Helsinki Watch, which later developed into Human Rights Watch. He went around in Europe asking Europeans to also organize Helsinki groups, fighting for what was in the Helsinki Final Act, which means respect for human rights. And that came later.

That came later. About what year?


'82. So what were your feelings as this process began to evolve? It must have harkened back to this experience as a young person, watching all of these immigrants fleeing from the Nazis coming through. Tell us a little about your emotions. I mean, this became your full-time vocation, working for these causes.

After '82, it became my full-time job. I was extremely impressed by the morale and personalities, and that they really did not fight for themselves, but they fought for democracy, freedom, the freedom of religion, the freedom of expression, and the freedom to move, etc. From a personal point of view, we had so much to learn from them, and I was impressed and very much taken by it. I thought, they fight and they are sacrificing so much, and they risk so much. And they were exiled, they were discriminated [against], had to go to prison, etc., etc. So the little we could do in giving them the support, we really should do.

It was not hard to find the support. For example, when we approached scientists and politicians and so on, "come join us," it was a very positive response. The only field where there was not a positive response was in the financial and in the business field because those people said, "Well, you know, we do business with them," and so on.

Do you think that this process had an important effect on political leaders, not just the ones that you were taking to these places, but also in the two superpowers? What is your sense of the dynamic by which this process of people-to-people diplomacy affected the political process between the superpowers?

I think that the movement which really was started ... let's go back in 1975; the Helsinki Accords were signed in August. The same year, Sakharov got his Nobel Prize, which he couldn't receive himself, but his wife, Jelena Bonner, [received] it. And in that speech, he asked people, groups, to form independent nongovernmental organizations -- you didn't use that word at that time -- to fight for, as it says in the Helsinki Final Act, "the right to know and the right to act upon." So in 1976 the first Moscow Helsinki group was established, with twelve men and women from different fields. The only thing they had in common was they wanted to fight and they wanted to take that risk. They were all discriminated [against] badly -- imprisoned, exiled, etc. Yuri Orlov was in charge. Jelena Bonner, Scharansky, Meiman, etc. And then in 1979, the first Helsinki group, Helsinki Watch in New York, and a Norwegian group was established, and then gradually other groups in Sweden and Austria, and in Finland, etc., came along. Within those, I could work.

Even later in 1982, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights was founded with these groups. What we could do was to support those groups which were in their repressive countries -- the Moscow group, the Prague group, the Warsaw group, etc. And these Helsinki groups in these countries were the nucleus of the dissident movement. I mean, the nucleus of Charter 77 was the Helsinki Committee, etc.

So this process incubated what became an extraordinary revolutionary process that brought the Iron Curtain down, the Berlin Wall down.

I think so. It is thanks to them and their brave fight that the Iron Curtain came down without bloodshed. I remember when Vaclav Havel was in New York [for the] first time, and he gave an interview to the Times. He said that if those Helsinki committees would not have acted, and if they wouldn't have been supported by the Helsinki groups in the West, the world wouldn't look that way. People like Michnik and Sakharov and Jelena Bonner have all confirmed that. We in the West are not the ones who should talk about that, or should make judgments, but they themselves have said so.

Describe common elements in these people like Sakharov and Havel and so on, as you interacted with them and observed them. What stands out? Their courage? Their spirit? Or what?

All of it. All of it. I mean, they went into this with open eyes. They knew that they were and they continued to be discriminated against, but they never gave up. A small little aspect I want to mention, because they were heroes, and we considered them heroes, they were heroes, and they were treated like heroes by us. Those who paid also, which nobody talks about, who paid a very high price, were their wives and their children. Because sometimes they were also interested in this political and human rights fight, sometimes they were not. But regardless of that, they were badly discriminated [against]. And sometimes they had to bear a terrible burden because the men went to prison, they came out again, they went to prison again. The wives had to carry on with no money, taking care of the children, etc. So I would really like to mention them.

What does observing all of this teach you about democracy and freedom? Was it a case where you actually learned to appreciate those values in ways that you hadn't before, living in Sweden?

Absolutely. I mean, some of them -- Sakharov himself, for example -- lived a privileged life. He could have continued and said, "Phoo ... " But that is why I admire them and we all admire them. As I told you, when I came there, I was not convinced that this was going to be my thing. But they were really so impressive, and they made it clear that the fight that they were fighting needed support, and it was an important fight.

Who were your colleagues on the Western side, for example, on the Helsinki Committee? What were their backgrounds? Were they businessmen and intellectuals, students? Who were they?

I think I was the only businessman in this crowd. I was surrounded, I would say, most of them were lawyers, professors of law and so on, political science, scientists and so on. Some who had been in politics and were in politics. I would say mostly that category of people.

Next page: Lessons Learned

© Copyright 2002, Regents of the University of California