Full text of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s commencement speech addressed at the 368th Harvard Commencement on May 30, 2019. Below is the edited verbatim transcript of the speech…
Best quote from this speech:
“Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow mindedness for nothing has to stay as it is.”
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Angela Merkel – German Chancellor
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.
Herman Hesse wrote, “In all beginnings dwells a magic force for guarding us and helping us to live.”
These words by Herman Hesse inspired me when I completed my physics degree at the age of 24. That was back in 1978. The world was divided into East and West, and it was in the grips of the Cold War.
I grew up in East Germany, in the GDR, the part of my country which was not free at that time, in a dictatorship. People were oppressed and under state surveillance. Political dissidents were persecuted. The East German government was afraid that the people would flee to freedom. And that’s why it built the Berlin Wall, a wall made of concrete and steel.
Anyone caught trying to overcome it was arrested or shot dead. This wall, which cut Berlin in half, divided a people and it divided families. My family was also divided.
My first job after college was as a physicist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. I lived near the Berlin Wall. I walked towards it every day on my way home from my institute. 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 minute in order to head towards my apartment.
Every day, I had to turn away from freedom at the last minute. I don’t know how often I thought that I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was so frustrating.
Now, I was not a dissident. I didn’t run up and bang against the wall. Nor, however, did I deny its existence, for I didn’t want to lie to myself.
The Berlin Wall limited my opportunities. It quite literally stood in my way. However, there was one thing which this wall couldn’t do during all of those years. It couldn’t impose limits on my inner thoughts. My personality, my imagination, my dreams and desires, prohibitions or coercion couldn’t limit any of that.
Then came 1989. A common desire for freedom unleashed incredible forces throughout Europe. In Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, as well as in East Germany, hundreds of thousands of people dared to take to the streets. The people demonstrated and brought down the wall. Something which many people, including myself, would not have believed possible became reality.
Where there was once only a dark wall, a door suddenly opened. For me, too, the moment had come to walk through that door. I no longer had to turn away from freedom at the last minute. I was able to cross this border and venture out into the great wide open.
During these months, 30 years ago, I experienced first-hand that nothing has to stay the way it is. This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I want to share with you today for your future. Anything that seems to be set in stone or inalterable can, indeed, change.
In matters both large and small, it holds true that every change begins in the mind. My parents’ generation discovered this in a most painful way. My father and mother were born in 1926 and 1928. When they weren’t as old as most of you here today, the betrayal of all civilized well values that was the Shoah and World War II had just ended.
My country, Germany, had brought unimaginable suffering on Europe and the world. The victors and the defeated could easily have remained irreconcilable for many years. But instead, Europe overcame centuries old conflicts. A peaceful order based on common values rather than supposed national strength emerged.
Despite all the discussions and temporary setbacks, I firmly believe that we Europeans have united for the better. And the relationship between Germans and Americans, too, demonstrates how former wartime enemies can become friends.
It was George Marshall who gave a crucial contribution to this for the plan he announced at the commencement ceremonies in 1947 in this very place. The 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.
And today, it will not be long now before the politicians of my generation are no longer the subject of the exercising leadership program, and at most will be dealt with in leadership in history.
Harvard Class of 2019, your generation will be faced with 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, jeopardize free international trade, and thus the very foundations of our prosperity. The digital transformation affects all facets of our lives. Wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration. Climate change poses a threat to our planet’s natural resources; it and the resulting crises are caused by humans.
Therefore, we can and must do everything humanly possible to truly master this challenge to humankind. It’s still possible. However, each and every one of us must play our part. And I say this with a measure of self-criticism, get better.
I will therefore do everything in my power to ensure that Germany, my country, will achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Changes for the better are possible if we tackle them together. If we were to go it alone, we could not achieve much.
The second thought I want to share with you is therefore, more than ever our way of thinking and our actions have to be multilateral rather than unilateral, global rather than national, outward looking rather than isolationists. In short, we have to work together rather than alone.
You, dear graduates, will have quite different opportunities to do this in future than my generation did. After all, your smartphone probably has considerably more processing power than the copy of an IBM mainframe computer manufactured in the Soviet Union, which I was allowed to use for my dissertation in East Germany in 1986.
Today we use artificial intelligence, for example, to search through millions of images for symptoms of diseases. In order, among other things, to better diagnose cancer. In future, empathetic robots could help doctors and nurses to focus on the individual needs of patients.
We cannot predict today which applications will be possible. However, the opportunities it brings are truly breathtaking. Class of 2019, how we use these opportunities will be largely up to you as graduates.
You are the ones who will be involved in deciding how our approach to how we work, communicate, get about, indeed, our entire way of life will develop.
As federal chancellor, I often have to ask myself, “Am I doing the right thing?” “Am I doing something? Because it isn’t right? Or simply because it is possible.”
That is something you too need to keep asking yourselves. And that is the third thought I wish to share with you today.
Are we laying down the rules for technology or is technology dictating how we interact? Do we prioritize people as individuals with their human dignity and all their many facets? Or do we see in them merely consumers, data sources, objects of surveyance. These are difficult questions.
I have learned that we can find good answers even to difficult questions if we always try to view the world through the eyes of others. If we respect other people’s history, traditions, religion, and identity.
If we hold fast to our inalienable values and act in accordance with them. And if we don’t always act on our first impulses, even when there is pressure to make a snap decision. But instead take a moment to stop. Be still. Think. Pause.
Granted, that certainly takes courage. Above all it calls for truthfulness in our attitude towards 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.
It requires us not to accept shortcomings as our normality. Yet what, dear graduates, could stop you? What could stop us from doing that?
Once again, the answer is walls. Walls in people’s minds. Walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They exist between family members, as well as between groups within the society, between people of different skin colors, nations, and religions.
I would like us to break down these walls. Walls that keep preventing us from envisioning the world in which, together, we want to live. Whether we manage to do that is up to us.
That’s why my fourth thought for you, dear graduates, to consider is this. Nothing can be taken for granted. Our individual liberties are not givens. Democracy is not something we can take for granted. Neither is peace and neither is prosperity.
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.
Walls can collapse. Dictatorships can disappear. We can halt global warming. We can eradicate starvation. We can eliminate diseases. We can give people, especially girls, access to education. We can fight the causes of displacement and forced migration. We can do all of that.
So let’s not start by asking what isn’t possible, or focusing on what has always been that way. Let’s start by asking what is possible and looking for things that have never been done like that before. This is exactly what I said to the Bundestag, the German Parliament, in 2005 in my first policy statement as newly elected Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the first woman to hold this office.
And I want to use precisely these words to share with you my fifth thought. Let us surprise ourselves by showing what is possible. Let us surprise ourselves by showing what we are capable of.
In my own life, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall that allowed me almost 30 years ago to step out into the open. At that point, I left my work as a scientist behind me and entered politics. That was an exciting and magical time, just as your lives will be exciting and magical.
But I also experienced moments of doubt and worry. For at that time, we all knew what lay behind us, but not what might lie ahead. Perhaps that reflects a little how you, too, are feeling today, amidst all the joy of this occasion.
The sixth thought I also want to share with you is this. The moment when you step out into the open is also a moment of risk-taking. 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 the difference, the space between beginning and ending.
It is what lies in between that we call life and experience. I believe at time and time again, we need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings and to make the most of opportunities. That was what I learned as a student, as a scientist, and it is what I experience now in politics. And who knows what life will bring after my time as a politician? That, too, 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. Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow mindedness for nothing has to stay as it is.
It’s six things. Take joint action in the interest of a multi-lateral global world. Keep asking yourselves, “Am I doing something because it is right, or simply because it’s possible?”
Don’t forget that freedom is never something that can be taken for granted. Surprise yourself with what is possible. 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.