Angela Merkel

Commencement Address at Harvard University

delivered 30 May 2019

 

Deutsche

 

[Original language translation via AI (Google) and supplemental human modification.

Thank you. And, I think, let's start.

President Bacow, Fellows of the Corporation, Members of the Board of Overseers, Members of the Alumni Board, Members of the Faculty, Proud Parents, and Graduates:

Today is a day of joy. It's your day. Many congratulations. I am delighted to be here today and would like to tell you about some of my own experiences. This ceremony marks the end of an intensive and, probably also, hard chapter in your lives. Now the door to a new life is opening. That's exciting and inspiring.

The German writer Hermann Hesse had some wonderful words for such a situation in life. I'd like to quote him and then continue in my native language. Hermann Hesse wrote:

In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
1

These words by Hermann Hesse inspired me when I completed my physics degree at the age of 24. That was back in the year 1978.

The world was divided into East and West. It was during of the Cold War. I grew up in East Germany, in the GDR, at a time when that part of my homeland was not free, in a dictatorship. People were oppressed and monitored by the state. Political opponents were persecuted. The government of the GDR was afraid that the people would run away to freedom. And that's why the Berlin Wall was built. It was made of concrete and steel. Anyone who was discovered trying to overcome it was arrested or shot. This wall in the middle of Berlin divided a people -- and it divided families. My family was divided too.

My first job after graduation was as a physicist in East Berlin at the Academy of Sciences. I lived near the Berlin Wall. On the way home from my institute I walked past it every day. Behind it lay West Berlin, freedom. And every day, when I was very close to the wall, I had to turn away at the last moment -- and head towards my apartment. Every day I had to turn away from freedom at the last minute. I don't know how many times I thought, I couldn't stand it anymore. It was really frustrating.

I was not a dissident. I did not run up and bang against the wall, but neither did I deny its existence because I did not want to lie to myself. The Berlin Wall limited my possibilities. It was literally in my way. But one thing that this wall could not do in all these years: It could not impose limits on my own inner thoughts. My personality, my imagination, my yearnings -- these could not be limited by prohibitions and coercion.

Then came the year 1989. Throughout Europe, the shared will for freedom unleashed incredible powers. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the GDR. The people demonstrated and brought down the wall. What many people had not thought possible -- even me -- became reality. Where once there had been a dark wall, a door suddenly opened. The moment had come for me, too, to step through that door. I did not have to turn away from freedom at the last minute any longer. I could cross that line and venture out into the great, wide open.

During these months, 30 years ago, I personally experienced that nothing has to remain as it is. This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I would like to share with you today for your future: What seems fixed and unchanging can in fact change.

And in matters both large and small, every change begins in the mind. The generation of my parents had to learn this most painfully. My father and mother were born in 1926 and 1928. When they were as old as most of you here today, the rupture of civilization that was the Shoa [Holocaust] and the Second World War had just ended. My country, Germany, had brought unimaginable suffering upon Europe and the world. How likely would it have been for the victors and the vanquished to remain irreconcilable for many years? But instead, Europe overcame centuries of conflict. The result was a peaceful order based on common values rather than supposed national strength.

Notwithstanding all the discussions and temporary setbacks, I am firmly convinced that we Europeans have united for the better. And the relationship between Germans and Americans shows how former enemies in war can become friends.

It was George Marshall who gave a significant contribution to this with the plan which he proclaimed in this very place at a Commencement Address in 1947. The transatlantic partnership with our values of democracy and human rights has given us a time of peace and prosperity to the benefit of all that has lasted for over 70 years. And today? It will not be long now before the politicians of my generation are no longer subject to the program of "Exercising Leadership," but at most will be dealt with in "Leadership in History."

Dear Harvard Class of 2019: Your generation will face the challenges of the 21st century in the coming decades. You are among those who will lead us into the future. Protectionism and trade conflicts endanger free world trade and thus the foundations of our prosperity. The digital transformation covers all areas of our lives. Wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration. Climate change threatens our planet's natural resources. It and the resulting crises are caused by humans. So we can and must do everything humanly possible to really get this challenge to humanity under control. This is still possible. But everyone has to do their part and -- I say this self-critically -- get better. Therefore, I will do my utmost to ensure that Germany, my country, will reach the goal of climate neutrality by 2050.

Change for the better is possible if we tackle it together. Going it alone, we will not succeed. And so this is my second thought for you: More than ever we have to think and act multilaterally instead of unilaterally, global instead of national, cosmopolitan rather than isolationist. In short, together instead of alone.

You, dear graduates, will in the future have quite different opportunities for this than my generation did. After all, your smartphone probably has far more computing power than the IBM mainframe replicated by the Soviet Union, which I was allowed to use in 1986 for my dissertation in the GDR.

Today, we use Artificial Intelligence to scan millions of images for symptoms of disease -- for example, to better diagnose cancer. In the future, empathic robots could help doctors and caregivers to focus on the individual needs of individual patients. We can not say what applications will be possible, but the opportunities that come with [AI] are truly breathtaking.

Class of 2019, it is essentially up to you as to how we will take advantage of these opportunities. It will be you who will decide how our way of working, communicating, moving, and even developing our way of life will evolve.

As Federal Chancellor, I often have to ask myself: Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing something because it is right, or just because it's possible? You should ask yourself that again and again -- and that is my third thought for you today: Do we set the rules of technology or does technology determine how we interact? Do we focus on people with their dignity in all its many facets, or do we only see the customer, the data sources, the objects of surveillance?

These are difficult questions. I have learned that answers to difficult questions can be found if we always see the world through the eyes of others; if we respect the history, tradition, religion, and identity of others; if we firmly stand by our inalienable values and act accordingly; and if we do not always follow our initial impulses, even with all the pressure to make snap decisions, but instead stop for a moment, keep quiet, think, take a break.

Of course, that takes a lot of courage. Above all, it requires being truthful to others and perhaps most importantly to ourselves. Where better to begin with it than here, in this place, where so many young people from all over the world come to learn under the motto of Truth -- to do research, and discuss the questions of our time? This implies that we do not describe lies as truth and truth as lies.2 As well, it implies that we do not accept grievances as our normality.

But what, dear graduates, could stop you -- what could hinder us from doing that? Again, there are walls: walls in the mind, walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They exist between members of a family as well as between social groups, between those of different skin colors, peoples, religions.3 I would like us to break down these walls -- walls that repeatedly prevent us from communicating about the world in which we want to live together.

Whether we succeed is up to us. Therefore, dear graduates, my fourth thought is this: Take nothing for granted. Our individual freedoms are not self-evident; democracy is not self-evident; neither is peace nor prosperity.

But if we tear down the walls4 that restrict us, if we open the door and embrace new beginnings, then everything is possible. Walls can collapse. Dictatorships can disappear. We can stop global warming. We can overcome hunger. We can eradicate diseases. We can give people, especially girls, access to education. We can fight the causes of displacement and forced migration. We can do all this.

So let us not ask first what is wrong or what has always been. Let us first ask what is possible and look for something that has never been done before.5

It was these exact words I spoke in 2005 during my very first policy statement, as the newly elected Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, as the first woman in this office, in the German Bundestag, the German Parliament.

And with these words I would like to share with you my fifth thought: Let us surprise ourselves with what is possible -- let us surprise ourselves with what we can do.

In my own life, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall that allowed me to step out into the open almost 30 years ago. At that time, I left behind my work as a scientist and went into politics. It was an exciting and magical time, just as your lives will be exciting and full of magic. But I also had moments of doubt and worry. For we all knew what lay behind us, but not what might lie ahead. Perhaps you're feeling a bit like that today amidst all the joy of the occasion.

Therefore, as my sixth thought, I can also tell you this: The moment you stand out in the open is also a moment of risk. Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning. There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death. Our whole life consists of this difference, the space between the beginning and the ending. What's in between, we call life and experience.

I believe that we must always be ready to finish things to feel the magic of beginnings and to make the most of our opportunities. That was my experience in study, in science, and it's what I have experienced in politics. And who knows what's in store for me after life as a politician? It is completely open. Only one thing is clear: It will again be something different and something new.

That's why I want to leave this wish with you: [1] Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is.

It's six things [to remember]:

[2] Take joint action in the interests of a multilateral global world.
[3] Keep asking yourselves: Am I doing something because it is right or simply because it's possible?
[4] Don't forget that freedom is never something that can be taken for granted.
[5] Surprise yourself with what is possible.
[6] Remember that openness always involves risks. Letting go of the old is part of the new beginning.

And above all, nothing can be taken for granted; everything is possible.

Thank you!

Deutsche


1 Hesse, H. Stages. In The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). New York: Henry Holt, Available online at: http://hesse.projects.gss.ucsb.edu/works/stages.html

2 Timely antimetabole

2 Thoughtful asyndeton

4 Allusion to President Reagan's famous words during his Brandenburg Gate Address

5 Merkel, A. (2005). Regierungserklärung von Bundeskanzlerin Dr. Angela Merkel vor dem Deutschen Bundestag am 30. November 2005 in Berlin. [At: https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/service/bulletin/regierungserklaerung-von-bundeskanzlerin-dr-angela-merkel-795782]

Original Text Source: bundeskanzlerin.de

Text Note: Translated from the German language via Google with some minor content formatting and style modifications.

Page Updated: 6/22/19

U.S. Copyright Status: Text = Used in compliance with German Copyright Law as found in the following sources: "By German law, documents are in the public domain if they have been published as part of a law or official decree or edict, or if they have been released as an official announcement or for public information. The relevant law is section 5 of the UrhG. The first sentence states: 'Laws, ordinances, official decrees and notices as well as decisions and official guidelines on decisions are not protected by copyright.' [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Copyright_rules_by_territory/Germany#Official_works

And: "Allowed is...the duplication and dissemination of speeches on daily matters in newspapers, magazines and in other pamphlets or other data carriers, which essentially take into account the daily interests, if the speeches are held at public meetings or published by public communication...." [https://dejure.org/gesetze/UrhG/48.html]

Top 100 American Speeches

Online Speech Bank

Movie Speeches

© Copyright 2001-Present. 
American Rhetoric.
HTML transcription by Michael E. Eidenmuller.