World War II was at a critical juncture when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill traveled to Harvard in September 1943 at the urging of his ally and friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt 1904, L.L.D. ’29. Taking a rare respite from the war, Churchill came to accept an honorary Doctor of Laws degree recognizing his international leadership that “turned back the tide of tyranny in freedom’s darkest hour.”
In 1947, as Europe’s vast devastation from that war had become clearer, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his success as the five-star Army general who had overseen much of the U.S. war operations in Europe. Marshall used his Commencement appearance in June that year to deliver a landmark speech pledging $13 billion for a new, U.S.-led aid program for Europe. That effort became known as the Marshall Plan and revitalized the continent.
Now, as national-populist forces again threaten to overtake much of Europe and undermine relations between the U.S. and the continent, Harvard again welcomes a pivotal democratic figure, a woman widely regarded as the most respected leader in the world, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On Thursday, Harvard will award Merkel an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during Morning Exercises, and she will address the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association during the Afternoon Program at the 368th Commencement.
Trained as a quantum chemist, Merkel spent her first 35 years living in Soviet-controlled East Germany, working at a state-run research center until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That historic shift prompted Merkel to abandon scientific work and embrace a lifelong interest in politics, steadily ascending the ranks of a newly-unified German government.
Elected chancellor in 2005, Merkel is the first woman and the first East German to hold her nation’s highest elective office. When she steps down in 2021, she will be Germany’s second-longest-serving leader of the modern era, after her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, who spoke at Harvard’s Commencement in 1990.
In advance of her visit, the Gazette spoke with current and former Merkel colleagues, diplomats, scholars, and journalists about her life, her rise to political power and her extraordinary influence on Germany and the world. Here are their reflections:
Students from Germany, who may barely remember when Angela Merkel wasn't chancellor, share their thoughts as she visits. Karl Oskar Schulz '22, who served as research assistant to Daniel Ziblatt and CES program assistant also shares his perspective.