30 May 2019 |Christina Pazzanese | The Harvard Gazette
As Harvard’s Class of 2019 gathered for the last time at Commencement Thursday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned the new graduates to take nothing for granted.
“Our individual liberties are not givens. Democracy is not something we can take for granted. Neither is peace, and neither is prosperity,” said Merkel, the main speaker. “But if we break down the walls that hem us in, if we step out into the open and have the courage to embrace new beginnings, everything is possible.”
Speaking primarily in German, with her remarks periodically translated into English, Merkel drew from her own remarkable life story as a 35-year-old scientist in communist East Germany who rose through the ranks of the newly unified state’s political system to become Germany’s first woman chancellor and, many analysts would argue, leader of the free world. She urged the new graduates to take risks, make thoughtful decisions, and hold onto core values.
She recalled her frustration at walking past the Berlin Wall every day on her way home from work. It was a barrier of steel and concrete that divided the city, its people, and its families, including her own.
“Every day, I had to turn away from freedom at the last minute,” she said of her early years, during a 35-minute speech to the graduates and alumni during the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) before an overflow crowd at Tercentenary Theatre.
“The Berlin Wall limited my opportunities. It quite literally stood in my way. However, there was one thing which this wall couldn’t do through all those years: It couldn’t impose limits on my inner thoughts, my personality, my imagination, my dreams and desires.”
Indeed, the wall’s unexpected fall in 1989 with the collapse of communism not only ended a divided Germany, it presented Merkel with new possibilities, including a chance to become someone she never imagined she could be. “A door suddenly opened” and “I was able to cross this border and venture out in to the great wide open,” she recalled.
What she learned from that transformative experience, she told the audience, was that “anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change,” and that they ought to approach the walls they’ll inevitably encounter in their lives, whether physical, social, intellectual, or cultural, in similar fashion.
During Morning Exercises, the German chancellor was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree for her resolute leadership on the world stage and her unwavering defense of democratic ideals and international cooperation.
More a traditional commencement speech than a political address, Merkel’s remarks did touch on several topical foreign-policy issues. She touted the benefits of the European Union and multilateralism, the importance of a transatlantic relationship with the U.S. that is “based on democratic values and human rights,” and — as Europe braces for a possible trade clash with the U.S. — mutual prosperity as a result of international free trade.
Despite her longstanding popularity as chancellor for 14 years, Merkel’s own center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, saw an erosion of voter support (to parties on both the far right and far left) in last week’s elections to the European Parliament. In a television interview, Merkel said showing democracy in action was the best way to confront the dangers posed by Europe’s rising populist, anti-democratic movements, while conceding that climate change is now a decisive political issue, particularly for young Germans.
Perhaps in a nod to that reality, Merkel, who will leave office in 2021, pledged that she would “do everything in my power” to ensure that Germany achieves climate neutrality by 2050.
In this era of impatience and instant gratification, Merkel urged the graduates and alumni to consider why they’re making decisions, particularly around technology. As chancellor, she said, she often asks herself whether she’s doing something because it is right or because it is possible.
“That is something you, too, need to keep asking yourselves,” she said. “Are we laying down the rules for technology, or is technology dictating how we act?”
A deliberative leader, Merkel suggested graduates take more time when thinking through decisions, a process that will require “courage and truthfulness” in how they deal with others.
“And perhaps most importantly, it calls for us to be honest with ourselves. What better place to begin to do so than here, in this place where so many young people from all over the world come to learn, research, and discuss the issues of our time under the maxim of truth? That requires us not to describe lies as truth and truth as lies,” she said, to a standing ovation.
In parting, Merkel advised graduates to go out into the world and “tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is.”
31 May 2019 | Michael Knigge | DW
Chancellor Merkel’s address came at an opportune time. It allowed her to escape, if only for a few hours, the political turmoil back home in Germany that was triggered by the poor performance of the parties that form the coalition government she leads in the recent European Parliament elections.
More importantly, it gave her the opportunity to speak in the United States at a critical juncture in the transatlantic relationship that has deeply strained since President Trump took office. That she did so in Boston at the country’s leading university, which has close and historic ties to Germany, and not in the capital Washington gave her more rhetorical room to get personal.
It was welcome that Merkel’s Boston sojourn was unencumbered by a meeting with the US president, which would have altered the nature of the entire trip and overshadowed her speech at Harvard University. And as anybody who observed their previous two meetings at the White House can attest, they yielded few tangible political results and did not change the dynamic between the two leaders.
Appeals to counter Trumpism
Having said that, even without a bilateral meeting with Donald Trump on the itinerary, and without mentioning him directly in her remarks, the president was clearly on Merkel’s and her audience’s mind.
That’s because some of the chancellor’s biggest applause lines were thinly cloaked appeals to counter President Trump and his “America First” brand of politics:
“More than ever our actions have to be multilateral rather than unilateral.”
“Don’t disguise lies as truth, and truth as lies.”
“Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness.”
These straightforward rejections of Trumpism were some of the strongest passages in her speech, along with the instances where she opened up a small window into her personal life.
“Every day I had to turn away from freedom at the last minute,” is how Merkel vividly described how as a young woman living in East Berlin she literally used to walk by the Berlin Wall, but could never cross over to the other side.
Merkel’s personal passages and her appeals to reject Trumpism were important and affirmative in nature. They clearly expressed a shared sentiment with her audience. But even more interesting was what the chancellor did not say.
“Nothing ever stays the same”
While she lauded the values-based transatlantic partnership that had benefited both sides for more than 70 years, she did not offer a vow or a prediction that it would be around for another seven decades. The transatlantic defense alliance NATO, for example, routinely assailed by Trump, did not feature in her remarks.
That she did not offer a full-throated promise to fight for the transatlantic partnership at a venue like Harvard University is telling and could serve as an indicator that she is convinced that the key theme of her speech, “Nothing ever stays the same,” also applies to the transatlantic relationship.
Equally telling were Merkel’s heart-felt statements that solving the big global challenges like climate change, the eradication of hunger and the elimination of diseases was possible. Her “Wir koennen das alles schaffen” (we can do all of that) rhetoric not only echoed Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, but also her own words from four years ago when she expressed her conviction that Germany could cope with the arrival of a large number of refugees. But beyond the affirmation that those big problems could be solved, she did not offer a roadmap of how that could be done.
It is probably too much to expect a commencement address to provide such a blueprint, but it was still noteworthy that despite the globalist theme of Merkel’s speech, her only concrete political promise was a national one — to do everything humanly possible to ensure that Germany achieves climate neutrality by 2050.