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.
A figure of hope
AN AUTHENTIC LEADER
She is extraordinary. She knows who she is. She does not try to be anything other. She is an authentic leader, which is critical. She has a set of strong values, and she understands Germany’s history exceedingly well, in part because she comes from East Germany. So she has a certain humility that comes from her particular biography. She fights for her country and for her people. She is analytical, she’s fierce, she’s a very skilled politician. She didn’t start out that way, but she certainly has become that. And she knows how to operate on the world stage — no easy task.
Under secretary of state for political affairs (2011‒2015); counselor of the State Department under Secretary Madeleine K. Albright (1997‒2001); special adviser to President Bill Clinton. Now professor of the practice of public leadership and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).
SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T FLINCH
The most dangerous issue in the West is that democracy is under siege. It’s being challenged by Russian cyberattacks, by divisive politics here at home, by the rise of the anti-democratic populists in Europe, and by Donald Trump. And for a lot of us who think that the West is important, the idea of a democratic world, she’s now the leader of the West. I’m told that she doesn’t want that mantle. But for all of us who think that democracy is under challenge and we must do everything we can to revive it, she’s the one Western leader who’s never flinched. I think she will arrive at Harvard with many, many people on both sides of the Atlantic seeing her as a figure of hope.
FROM CRISIS TO TURNING POINT
As ambassador to the Holy See, I witnessed the reaction to the way Merkel handled the migration crisis. She was viewed as “the woman who saved the dignity of Europe.” For Merkel, this decision was critical. While populists were maneuvering to use the issue to their advantage, she viewed it as the hour of truth for a Christian democracy. How Europe treated refugees was a testament to how it treats human beings. For her, the migration crisis was a turning point for Europe to demonstrate how to act responsibly.
ONE OF THE GREAT CHANCELLORS
Considering the challenges she has faced, I would rank her as one of the great chancellors because she dealt with, like some of her predecessors, a major critical development: the breakdown of the established rules-based system in the wake of the U.S. election. She’s handled that very well, so far. That is her big crisis. She kept the European Union together in difficult times, particularly when the question came up of dealing with Russia, which is another crisis where she did well. Inside the European Union, there was a lot of divergence on whether or not to impose sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. She twisted the arms of some countries quite successfully to keep them on board, in close cooperation with the White House under [Barack] Obama.
SECRET TO HER SUCCESS
What constitutes her success? If you ask me, it’s not visible at first sight. Probably the most remarkable achievement will be to have kept so much stability and continuity to the system in Germany, to government, to the country, to everyone’s life — with continued growth in economic terms, but also politically. When she took office, we were living through the terrorist age, then immediately slid into the most tumultuous economic times with 2008 and the ensuing economic crises, the European currency crisis. Her biggest, first achievement was preventing the euro from disintegrating. The second was to keep the EU together as it is now. Even the way the British show how difficult it is to get out, and what attraction the EU still can project, this shows that there must be something to it. She’s not a big performer, she’s not a huge visionary. She’s the stable hand.
A MISTAKE TO UNDERESTIMATE
She does everything possible not to talk about herself. She doesn’t give interviews to correspondents from leading Western newspapers and magazines; she gives interviews to local papers when it’s politically advantageous. She seems to have no vanity. I’m sure she does, but she seems to have none, and that’s been one of her great assets as a politician. Whenever she runs up against a powerful and vain male German politician, she’s inevitably underestimated. She bides her time, and then, when the moment is right, she gives a small but decisive shove, and that person has to find some other line of work. That’s been her way to the top from the beginning. She doesn’t need to win every argument. She doesn’t have to get in the last word. She quietly assesses the different factors involved in a given situation and then decides which way she wants to go, and does it quietly and without fanfare. It’s a different kind of political style that Germans had not known until Merkel.
A LEADER RESPECTED
She’s seen to be a problem-solver who sometimes puts other people’s best interests forward. And that’s just so remarkably unlike most politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, that she’s stood out — to be serious, analytical, not always looking for the votes. She leads a country that has become, without any question, the strongest in Europe economically and politically, far stronger than France or Britain, the other two of that triumvirate. Her personal behavior, her seriousness, the way she drills down on issues — she’s substantive, she’s not superficial. If you took a private poll of the G20 leaders, the most powerful leaders in the world, and you asked, “Who do you respect the most in this group?” Merkel wins the poll. Or ask “Who would chair this group in a fair way?” They’d put the gavel in her hands.
— NICHOLAS BURNS
DOESN’T NEED POLITICS
A number of things are distinctive about her, but the thing that distinguishes her from most other politicians is that she’s genuinely not needy. She genuinely doesn’t need politics to be happy. People who know her much better say she ran for a fourth term because she felt responsible. She felt that she needed to, as it were, “finish her job.” Whenever she gets to step away, she will do so very happily. And I find that more credible than with most other politicians I’ve met.
A LATE RISE TO POWER
Her political career could have never been anticipated, and never gave the idea that she could end up as chancellor or that she would be the leader of the Western world somehow. The speed in which she took on politics after ’89, especially when she joined the first unified German cabinet in ’91 and the continuing years, was breathtaking. There’s hardly a political career in these professionalized times where you start that late, at age 35, and not that high. So yes, this is stunning.
The second stunning thing is that her private character, the base on which all of this stands, has changed remarkably little. Yes, she has become, through and through, a political animal. She is breathing and thinking and dreaming politics, I guess. But on the other side, her character has not changed at all — the way she deals with people, the way she shows interest, the way she engages. She has not disappeared in the fog of prominence or of being a superhero. She’s a very down-to-earth woman, very self-critical. She’s always suspicious of people adoring her too much. She has kept that kind of ability to stand beside herself, watch herself, and tell herself, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, Angela.”
— STEFAN KORNELIUS
Ever the East German
A CHILD OF THE EAST
Her father was called “The Red Minister” because when everyone else was going west after the division of Germany following World War II, he went east and took over a parish north of Berlin, in the heartland of Brandenburg. It’s known for its correctness and its uprightness and the values of German Protestantism: hard work, discipline, self-effacement, all those things different from the German south. That was the region that shaped Merkel. That was the father who gave her a sense of purpose and responsibility. But she certainly didn’t take his politics and live by them. She was a good East German. She did not become a dissident. She avoided all the traps that could have derailed her career and even worse. She kept her head down and did what you had to do in order to have a decent life and a reasonably successful career.
— GEORGE PACKER
FROM SCIENCE TO POLITICS
She always was deeply interested in politics. She tells the story that she listened to West German radio in secret at her parents’ home, that she always dreamt of visiting Westminster in London, and so Parliament. Her first trip abroad led her to London. The first thing she did from Heathrow was to come up the escalator at Parliament Square in London and see the Churchill statue and then Parliament. Then, going on to Speakers’ Corner, watching those people debating. She had this deep desire to engage in public affairs and the public exchange of arguments.
— STEFAN KORNELIUS