I was in Cambridge this past week for Harvard’s graduation. The last one I’d been to was 29 years ago, when I wore the cap and gown.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, gave a very good graduation speech. By a strange coincidence, my graduation speaker was Helmut Kohl, the previous German chancellor, in May of 1990. That was only six months after the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
And so more remarkable to me than what either of those speakers actually said was what they represented, what has happened in the generation between, and the lessons that you can draw from that.
When I was 22, Chancellor Kohl encouraged the U.S. to stay engaged and help create a sort of “United States of Europe.” He drew on the spirit of the Marshall Plan, which was itself announced in a Harvard commencement speech at the end of World War II. That plan helped rebuild western Europe.
Looking back, that’s essentially what has happened. Because the U.S. remained constructively engaged with Europe, and because of strong leadership from Germany, Europe created its own union and remained peaceful and prosperous.
That didn’t have to happen. It wasn’t inevitable. Leaders made choices, and those choices had consequences, and sometimes they had to pay a political price.
In fact, Merkel made that point explicitly. She grew up in East Germany, the daughter of parents who had gone through the Nazi period. Germany had been the best-educated society in the world, but civilization essentially broke down and mass murderers ran the country, and then a different totalitarian system took over after the war.
But that wasn’t forever, either. Eventually, popular pressure broke down the Berlin Wall, and Germany was reunited, a democratic, free-market country.
Could it have swung back to barbarism again? Well, of course it could have. But it didn’t.
Nothing is inevitable. Even the biggest problems have solutions. On the other hand, even the blessings we take for granted — freedom and prosperity — aren’t guaranteed forever. We have to keep working to earn them, day after day, year after year.
If we work hard enough at it, one of the kids who graduated this spring will go back to hear a graduation speech in another generation, and the world will be better off. Truth is, although we certainly have lots of problems, that’s what has happened.