Looking back on her time in East Germany during the Cold War and its aftermath, German Chancellor Angela Merkel assured members of the Class of 2019 that change is always possible in her address during the afternoon exercises of the 368th Commencement Thursday.
Merkel — speaking in German for the majority of her speech — described how the Berlin Wall stood in the way of freedom and how most doubted it would ever be torn down until people rose up in 1989.
“Where there was once only a dark wall, a door opened,” Merkel said. “Anything that seems to be set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.”
Merkel has served as chancellor of Germany since 2005 — she the first woman and East German to lead the European nation. She announced in October 2018 she would not seek re-election when her term ends in 2021.
A former chemist, Merkel began her career in politics in 1991 when she won a seat in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. Considered by many to be Europe’s most influential leader, Merkel is known for steering Germany through the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, welcoming nearly a million migrants and refugees into the country, and frequently criticizing United States President Donald Trump’s policies.
Merkel called on the graduates to “work together rather than alone” to find solutions to global problems. The long-standing chancellor has stood in staunch opposition to the rise of nationalist parties and politicians across Europe — a contingent that increasingly threatens Merkel’s establishment, centrist politics.
"Our way of thinking and our actions have to be multilateral rather than unilateral, global rather than national, outward-looking rather than isolationist,” Merkel said.
She listed a number of current issues — including climate change, gun violence, and racism — and told the Class of 2019 they would have to be leaders going forward.
“Your generation will be faced with the challenges of the 21st century in the coming decades,” Merkel said. “You are among those who will lead us into the future.”
Merkel used part of her 35-minute speech to highlight the relationship between the United States and Germany and praise the benefits of “transatlantic partnerships.” She referenced former Secretary of State General George C. Marshall’s 1947 commencement speech at Harvard in which he outlined his famous plan — later known as “The Marshall Plan” —for European political and economic recovery after World War II, which involved financial assistance toward reconstruction in post-war Europe.
“A transatlantic partnership based on values such as democracy and human rights has given us an era of peace and prosperity, of benefit to all sides, which has lasted for more than 70 years now,” Merkel said.
Merkel warned that going against international partnerships can be destructive.
“Protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardize free international trade and mask the very foundations of our prosperity,” she said.
Though Merkel never mentioned Trump in her address, her comments come in light of escalating trade wars between the U.S. and China. The European trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has warned European Union trade ministers that the U.S. administration may levy tariffs on billions of euros worth of European goods.
Merkel closed her speech in English, once again imploring graduates to use their actions to destroy harmful boundaries for the betterment of society.
“Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow mindedness, for nothing has to stay how it is,” she said.
Before Merkel took the stage, University President Lawrence S. Bacow gave his own address during the afternoon exercises.
He reflected on his first year as University President during his roughly 11-minute speech Thursday afternoon.
“During my brief time in office, the world has shown us how urgent our work is,” Bacow said. “I’m an optimist because I live and work among all of you.”
During the morning exercises, Bacow conferred 6,665 degrees to students across Harvard’s schools. Bacow also bestowed upon Merkel an honorary degree.
—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.