CAMBRIDGE — German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered a sharp and not-so-veiled rebuke of President Trump and his brand of nationalism during her commencement speech at Harvard University on Thursday.
Merkel never mentioned Trump by name, but warned graduating students of the dangers of building walls and approaching the world’s problems — from climate change and trade to terrorism and forced migration — with an isolationist, go-it-yourself philosophy.
“Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness,” Merkel told a sea of Harvard students and their family members, alumni, and university leaders who gathered for the annual rite of passage. “Changes for the better are possible, if we tackle them together. . . . Take joint action in the interests of the multilateral, global world.”
Merkel, who has served as chancellor since 2005 and announced that she will step down in 2021, has a fraught relationship with Trump. They have clashed on issues of trade and immigration, with Trump threatening tariffs on European cars because of the trade imbalance between the countries. Trump has also taken to Twitter to suggest that Merkel is “ruining Germany.”
On Thursday, Merkel argued that protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardize both countries and “the very foundations of our prosperity.”
She also took what was seen by many in the audience as an apparent dig at Trump’s frequent and often unrestrained Twitter postings, and urged graduates to “take a moment to stop, be still, think, pause. Certainly that takes courage,” Merkel said to a rousing ovation from the crowd. “That requires us not to describe lies as truth and truth as lies.”
Merkel was one of nine notable figures to receive an honorary degree from Harvard during its 368th commencement ceremony events this week. The German leader, who grew up in East Germany before the country was unified and who was trained as a scientist, is considered one of the most powerful politicians in Europe.
Her presence was also a reminder of how far Europe and the United States have come in a couple of generations. Merkel reminded students that her parents were about their age at the end of Hitler’s reign, and she spoke in front of Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, who is Jewish and whose mother survived the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Merkel, who spoke mostly in German and used a translator, spent much of her speech reflecting on her career and her country’s transformation this past century. She noted that post-war Germany was shaped at a Harvard commencement ceremony more than 70 years ago, when retired General George Marshall gave a short speech outlining a massive aid plan for Europe that helped turn Germany from a US enemy to a close ally.
She also stood by the European Union, even as it has come under attack by Trump, nationalist forces in Europe, and Britain, which is trying to leave the membership.
However, when Harvard’s alumni president suggested in her introduction that Merkel was the “de facto leader of the European Union,” the chancellor shook her head in disagreement.
For Merkel, the speech offered an opportunity to defend the ideas that have been the backbone of the US-European relationship since after World War II and why they remain relevant to the next generation of leaders.
“The transatlantic partnership based on democracy and human rights has given us benefits on all sides that have lasted more than 70 years,” she said.
Merkel recalled being a young scientist in communist East Germany, where the government prosecuted political dissidents and monitored its citizens. She would pass the Berlin Wall, which separated her from democratic West Germany, on her way to work and have “to turn away from freedom at the last minute,” Merkel said. “The Berlin Wall literally stood in my way.”
But that barrier eventually came down in 1989 as a wave of anti-communist protests swept across much of Europe.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall allowed me to step out into the open,” Merkel said.
Merkel did not speak directly to Trump’s call for a wall at the US-Mexico border to deter immigration at the southern border.
Critics have argued that the wall would be an ineffective way to curb illegal crossings and limit drug trafficking, and they have accused the president of using fear tactics and demonizing Central American immigrants.
Merkel counseled the 2019 Harvard graduates to remain optimistic that they can address the challenges ahead, including climate change.
But she reminded them to remain vigilant.
“Freedom is never something that can be taken for granted,” Merkel said. “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. . . . Let us surprise ourselves by showing what is possible.”