When German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed Harvard’s 2019 graduating class Thursday, to some liberal listeners she may have appeared like the 2016 Democratic candidate they never had: dismantling President Trump’s worldview without even having to mention his name.
In a remarkable, pro-democracy statement, she urged Harvard students to “tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness” that fuel nationalism.
At times, Merkel, who grew up in socialist East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, appeared to echo the rhetoric of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
“I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is. This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change,” she said.
“Walls can fall. Dictatorships can disappear. We can stop global warming. We can defeat hunger. We can exterminate illnesses. We can provide access to education, especially for girls. We can fight the root causes of flight and expulsion," Merkel said in an unusually emotional speech.
Addressing the enthusiastic 2019 graduating class, Merkel also urged them to never “describe lies as truth and truth as lies.”
At Harvard, Merkel was applauded. But back home in Germany, her demands for truthfulness immediately triggered a fact check: Merkel, her left-wing critics there said, has not always been the liberal icon she is being portrayed as abroad.
“Angela Merkel and her party have been the biggest obstacle to progressive change in Germany in the past two decades,” tweeted Tarik Abou-Chadi, a political science researcher at the University of Zurich.
Merkel, a conservative politician despite being associated with largely liberal policies, has mastered the art of waiting long enough to get a sense for what the majority of Germans expect from her. As Germany has gradually become more liberal on gay rights and the environment, for instance, Merkel has followed along.
An originally conservative, but today mostly pragmatic leader, as many of her centrist supporters in Germany would say.
But instead of leading her country, staunchly left-wing critics argue, Merkel has mostly followed changes driven by other parties, including the rising Green Party. That’s why many German left-wing commentators have a hard time reconciling their view on Merkel with the enthusiasm with which she has been met abroad.
The assumption abroad: In the United States, Merkel’s welcoming stance toward refugees has often been contrasted with Trump’s determination to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In comparison, Merkel appears to stand for a humane and welcoming policy. Harvard University awarded Merkel an honorary law degree, specifically citing her role in accommodating refugees over the past few years.
The reality: It is true that Merkel took a huge risk in 2015, when she rhetorically welcomed Syrian refugees in Germany. Almost 1 million refugees entered the country that year, stretching the country’s authorities to their limits. Four years on, Merkel is still in power, more refugees are finding work and the chaos for which some U.S. conservatives had perhaps hoped to justify their opposition has not occurred.
But while the migrant influx itself may so far be a success story, Merkel’s role in it has come into question. More recent reporting has suggested that the chancellor was overwhelmed herself and may have triggered the influx essentially by accident — through inaction that was hard to reverse rather than a deliberate decision.
And then, there’s the Mediterranean Sea. While Europe does not have a wall along its southern border, it has a treacherous stretch of water. More than 10,000 migrants have died trying to reach Europe via that route since 2015, with the real death toll likely to be far higher. Europe has done little to save them, and as Merkel’s critics argue, the European Union has in fact actively sought to stop rescue missions to make the journey even riskier.
To some liberal Germans, it is also Merkel’s Mediterranean “wall.”
The assumption abroad: Viewed from the world’s only country determined to leave the Paris climate agreement (a.k.a. the United States), Merkel’s approach to the environment may appear inspiring to liberals. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, she decided to phase out all German nuclear plants. She has repeatedly cited climate change as a global threat. That’s why, abroad, she is known as the “Climate Chancellor” for her global leadership on the issue.
The reality: Germany lags behind its own emissions targets. “Leading politicians — Merkel included — have staunchly resisted taking steps that activists say could help the country get back on track, including quickly shutting down the dirtiest coal-fired plants and setting a firm deadline for phasing out coal altogether,” my colleagues Griff Witte and Luisa Beck wrote. “ … Pushing the coal phaseout back that far could doom German chances of hitting its ambitious emission-reduction targets not only in 2020 but far beyond.”
The assumption abroad: One of the achievements of Merkel’s government is same-sex marriage, which was recognized by parliament in 2017.
The reality: It is true that the parliamentary vote would not have gone ahead without her approval, which is why some LGBT rights activists agree that it was ultimately her who paved the way for same-sex marriage in Germany.
But Merkel herself voted against it, citing personal convictions.
“For me, personally, marriage is a man and a woman living together,” Merkel explained in 2015.
That stance remained unchanged two years on, even though her opinion on adoption rights of same-sex couples had softened at that point.
Her ambiguity on the issue, both critics and supporters said at the time, fits the pattern that has shaped much of her 14 years as German chancellor: Merkel does not appear to define her role in an ideological way. Adjusting to the political winds made her a liberal icon abroad — but also a chancellor whose real thinking remains hard to grasp for many Germans.