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’m 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 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 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 GDR Government was afraid that the people would flee to freedom. That’s why it built the Berlin Wall. It was made of concrete and steel. Anyone caught trying to overcome it was arrested or shot dead. This Wall which bisected Berlin 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 just before reaching freedom. I don’t know how often I thought that I couldn’t take it any more. It was really frustrating.
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 the GDR, hundreds of thousands of people dared to take to the streets. 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 wide world.
During these months 30 years ago, I experienced first-hand that nothing has to stay the way it is. This experience 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 is in a most painful way. My father and mother were born in 1926 and 1928. When they were as old as most of you here today, the betrayal of all civilized 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.
The relationship between Germans and Americans also demonstrates how erstwhile wartime enemies can became friends. 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 foundation of our prosperity. The digital transformation affects all facets of our lives. Wars and terrorism lead to 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 we possibly can 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 – achieves climate neutrality by 2050.
Changes for the better are possible if we tackle them together. Individual countries cannot achieve much on their own. 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 isolationist. In short: we have to work together rather than alone.
You as graduates will have quite different opportunities to do this in future than my generation did. 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 the GDR in 1986.
Today we use artificial intelligence, for example, to search through millions of images for symptoms of disease 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.
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 is right or simply because it is possible? That is something you need to keep asking yourselves, too, and that is the third insight I have for 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 surveillance?
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 or truth as lies. It requires us not to accept shortcomings as our normality.
Yet what 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 societal groups, people of different skin colors, nations and religions.
I would like to see us 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 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, 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 insight: 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. 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 insight I therefore 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.
It is a universal truth that 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. What lies in between we call life and experience.
I believe that 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 remains to be seen. Only one thing is clear: it will be something different, and something new.
[English] That’s why I want to leave this advice with you:
Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is.
Take joint action – in the interests of a multilateral global world.
Keep asking yourselves: Am I doing something because it is right or simply because it is possible?
Don’t forget that freedom is never something that can be taken for granted.
Surprise yourselves with what is possible.
Remember that openness always involves risks. Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning. And above all: Nothing can be taken for granted, everything is possible.
Thank you very much.