Merkel, in her 13th year as chancellor and widely regarded as the leader of Western Europe, never mentioned President Donald Trump by name in the commencement keynote speech. But she laid out a worldview that showed her deep differences both with his administration and the forces of right-wing populism that have emerged in Europe and elsewhere. And she did so on America’s most prominent academic stage.
Speaking mostly in German with a consecutive English translation, Merkel, 64, paused more than a dozen times for applause and received three standing ovations from the graduates and guests at Harvard’s commencement in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Earlier in the day, Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, awarded Merkel an honorary doctor of laws degree.
The chancellor, who has said she will leave politics in 2021, began by telling the crowd how, as a young physicist in East Berlin during the Cold War, she walked home every day, frustrated and despondent that the wall dividing the city had limited her life. All of that changed abruptly when the wall came down in 1989.
“I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is,” she said. “This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.”
Merkel, who is one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, has been blamed by some critics for having created the conditions for its populist wave, including the ascent of the far-right Alternative for Germany party and the anti-Islam backlash over her decision to allow roughly 1 million refugees from the Syrian war and other conflicts into Germany.
In contrast to Merkel’s close friendship with President Barack Obama, her relationship with Trump has been awkward, punctuated by his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, his criticism of the European Union and NATO, and complaints about what he views as unfair trade relations with Germany.
Speaking with CNN this week, she acknowledged “contentious debates” with Trump while emphasising the need for a good working relationship with the United States.
Merkel said in the CNN interview that her Harvard speech would not be political and that she would focus on lessons drawn from her own life. But the chancellor’s remarks to the graduates about their challenges had clearly political overtones.
“Protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardise free international trade and thus the very foundations of our prosperity,” she said. “Wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration. Climate change poses a threat to our planet’s natural resources.”
She said to applause that “we can and must do everything humanly possible to truly master this challenge to humankind.”
Merkel also urged the graduates to “tear down walls of ignorance” that feed nationalism and isolationism, and to remember that democracy “is not something we can take for granted.”
The chancellor received a sustained standing ovation for her entreaties to respect others and embrace honesty — “and perhaps most important, be honest with ourselves.”
“What better place to begin to do so than here in this place,” she said, where people come to learn “under the maxim of truth.”
@2019 New York Times News Service