As Harvard’s Class of 2019 gathered for the last time at Commencement Thursday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned the new graduates to take nothing for granted.
“Our individual liberties are not givens. Democracy is not something we can take for granted. Neither is peace, and neither is prosperity,” said Merkel, the main speaker. “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.”
Speaking primarily in German, with her remarks periodically translated into English, Merkel drew from her own remarkable life story as a 35-year-old scientist in communist East Germany who rose through the ranks of the newly unified state’s political system to become Germany’s first woman chancellor and, many analysts would argue, leader of the free world. She urged the new graduates to take risks, make thoughtful decisions, and hold onto core values.
She recalled her frustration at walking past the Berlin Wall every day on her way home from work. It was a barrier of steel and concrete that divided the city, its people, and its families, including her own.
“Every day, I had to turn away from freedom at the last minute,” she said of her early years, during a 35-minute speech to the graduates and alumni during the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) before an overflow crowd at Tercentenary Theatre.