Angela Merkel

Commencement Address at Harvard University

delivered 30 May 2019




[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.

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 the time 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 options. It literally stood in my way. But there was one thing this wall could not do in all these years: It could not impose limits on my own inner thoughts. My personality, my imagination, my desires -- these could not be limited by prohibitions and coercion.

Then came the year 1989. Throughout Europe, the shared will for freedom unleashed incredible forces. Hundreds of thousands dared to take to the streets in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and also in the GDR. The people demonstrated and brought down the Wall. What many people had not thought possible -- including myself -- 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 border and venture out into the great, wide open.

During those 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: [1] 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 very painfully. My father and mother were born in 1926 and 1928. When they were as old as most of you here today, the fracture 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.

Despite 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 contributed significantly to this with a plan that 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 period of peace and prosperity that has lasted for over 70 years, and from which all have benefited. And today? It will not be long now before the politicians of my generation are no longer the subject of an "Exercising Leadership" course, but at be will be taken up with "Leadership in History."

Dear Harvard Class of 2019: Your generation will face the challenges of the 21st century in coming the 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 affects 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 comes to grips with these challenges to humanity. It is still possible. But everyone has to do their part and -- I say this self-critically -- do better. Therefore, I will do everything in my power 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: [2] More than ever, we must think and act multilaterally instead of unilaterally, globally instead of nationally, cosmopolitan rather than isolationist. In short: together instead of alone.

You, dear graduates, will, in the future, have quite different opportunities to do 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, for example, to scan millions of images for symptoms of disease -- 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 foresee which 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 help to 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: [3] Do we set the rules of technology or does technology determine how we interact? Do we focus on the human in their dignity in all its many facets, or do we only see the customer, the data source, the object of surveillance?

These are difficult questions. I have learned that answers even to difficult questions can be found if we always see the world through the eyes of the other person; 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, remain silent, reflect, take a break.

Admittedly, it takes courage to so. Above all, it requires being truthful with others and -- perhaps most importantly -- to ourselves. What better place to begin than right here, in this place, where so many young people from all over the world are learning, researching and discussing the questions of our time under the motto of Truth. 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 prevent you -- what could hinder us from doing that? Again, there are walls: walls in our minds -- 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 tear 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: [4] 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 anything is possible. Walls can collapse. Dictatorships can disappear. We can stop global warming. We can defeat hunger. We can eradicate disease. 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 government 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 it is precisely with these words that I would like to share with you my fifth thought: [5] 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. We all knew what lay behind us, but not what might lie ahead. Perhaps you're feeling a bit like that today amid all the joy of this occasion.

As my sixth thought, therefore, I can also tell you this: [6] 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 prepared to end things in order to feel the magic of beginnings and to make the most of our opportunities. That was my experience in college, 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!


1 Hesse, H. "Stages." In The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). New York: Henry Holt, Retrieved 17 February 2020. Poem also online at:

2 Timely antimetabole

3  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:]

Original Text Source:

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

Page Updated: 2/17/20

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