It’s Commencement season again, and this year did not disappoint. I was surprised to see that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, had spoken at Harvard Commencement this year. I was not, however, let down.
The Chancellor gave a wide-ranging speech, a sort of mini-memoir, which contained six exhortations of the new graduates:
- Take joint action in the interest 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 yourself with what is possible
- Remember that openness always involves risks; letting go of the old is part of the new beginning
- Nothing can be taken for granted
She ends with a succinct: “Anything is possible.”
The power of Merkel’s speech is in her history. Growing up in East Germany during Cold War, she encountered limitations to freedom. As the Berlin wall fell and the country moved toward reunification, she put herself in the public sphere and became a politician convinced to do the right thing. She became Chancellor in 2005, the first woman to fill the post. Her life demonstrates the full gamut of possibilities, from the oppressive dictatorship of Soviet Germany, to finding a new calling in transparent democratic politics as one of few women in the field.
The message & your opinions about it aside, the remarkable thing about this speech was that it was largely given in German. Merkel began in English with welcomes and thanks, then moved to German for the meat of her speech. She finished in English, summarizing her six points and issuing her final thanks. During the German piece, a translator spoke in English, translating about every sentence or so. I have never seen a Commencement speech given at an English-speaking university that wasn’t entirely in English. Perhaps this is more commonplace, but I approve and appreciate its ability to bring another language experience to a largely monolingual country. With its message of openness, the speech drove home this point with its language choice.
Well done to Chancellor Merkel.