Remarks by President Obama and Chancellor Merkel in an Exchange of Toasts
7:31 P.M. EDT
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good evening. Guten abend. Michelle and I are honored to welcome you as we host Chancellor Merkel, Professor Sauer, and the German delegation for the first official visit and State Dinner for a European leader during my presidency. (Applause.)
Angela, you and the German people have always shown me such warmth during my visits to Germany. I think of your gracious hospitality in Dresden. I think back to when I was a candidate and had that small rally in Berlin’s Tiergarten. (Laughter.) So we thought we’d reciprocate with a little dinner in our Rose Garden.
Now, it’s customary at these dinners to celebrate the values that bind nations. Tonight, we want to do something different. We want to pay tribute to an extraordinary leader who embodies these values and who’s inspired millions around the world -- including me -- and that’s my friend, Chancellor Merkel.
More than five decades ago -- in 1957 -- the first German chancellor ever to address our Congress, Konrad Adenauer, spoke of his people’s “will of freedom” and of the millions of his countrymen forced to live behind an Iron Curtain. And one of those millions, in a small East German town, was a young girl named Angela.
She remembers when the Wall went up and how everyone in her church was crying. Told by the communists that she couldn’t pursue her love of languages, she excelled as a physicist. Asked to spy for the secret police, she refused. And the night the Wall came down, she crossed over, like so many others, and finally experienced what she calls the “incredible gift of freedom.”
Tonight, we honor Angela Merkel not for being denied her freedom, or even for attaining her freedom, but for what she achieved when she gained her freedom. Determined to finally have her say, she entered politics -- rising to become the first East German to lead a united Germany, the first woman chancellor in German history, and an eloquent voice for human rights and dignity around the world.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest honor a President can bestow on a civilian. Most honorees are Americans; only a few others have received it, among them Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and Helmut Kohl. So please join me in welcoming Chancellor Merkel for the presentation of the next Medal of Freedom. (Applause.)
MILITARY AIDE: Presidential Medal of Freedom to Dr. Angela Merkel. Dr. Angela Merkel came to symbolize the triumph of freedom by becoming the first East German to serve as chancellor of a united Federal Republic of Germany. She also made history when she became Germany’s first female chancellor. A dedicated public servant, Chancellor Merkel has promoted liberty and prosperity in her own country, in Europe, and throughout the world.
[The medal is presented.]
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You can all applaud. (Laughter and applause.)
I’ve got to do the toast. (Laughter.) I want to conclude by inviting all of you to stand and join me in a toast. And I want to do so with the words that Angela spoke two years ago when she became the first German leader to address our Congress since Chancellor Adenauer all those decades ago.
Her words spoke not only to the dreams of that young girl in the East, but to the dreams of all who still yearn for their rights and dignity today: to freedom, which “must be struggled for, and then defended anew, every day of our lives.”
Cheers. Zum wohl. (Applause.)
CHANCELLOR MERKEL: (As translated.) Mr. President, dear Barack, dear Michelle, ladies and gentlemen -- the first political event during my childhood that I distinctly remember is the building of the Berlin Wall 50 years ago. I was seven years old at the time. Seeing the grownups around me, even my parents, so stunned that they actually broke out in tears, was something that shook me to the core. My mother’s family were separated through the building of the Wall.
I grew up in the part of Germany that was not free, the German Democratic Republic. For many years, I dreamt of freedom, just as many others did. Also of the freedom to travel to the United States. And I already had planned this out for the day that I would reach retirement age. That was the age of 60 for men -- sorry, for women at the time, and 65 for men. So we as women were somewhat privileged at the time. (Laughter.)
But imagining that I would one day stand in the Rose Garden of the White House and receive the Medal of Freedom from an American President, that was certainly beyond even my wildest dreams. And believe me, receiving this prestigious award moves me deeply.
My thanks go to the American people, first and foremost, for this extraordinary honor, knowing full well how much you have done for us Germans. And I thank you personally, Mr. President, because you are a man of strong convictions. You touch people with your passion and your visions for a good future for these people, also in Germany.
You have been able time and again to put down important international goalposts, injecting issues such as disarmament, the question of how to shape our relations with the countries of the Middle East, and last but not least, the Middle East -- the solution to the Middle East conflict with new dynamism.
Mr. President, I see the award of the Medal of Freedom as a testimony of the excellent German-American partnership. Our countries stand up together for peace and freedom.
History has often showed us the strength of the forces that are unleashed by the yearning for freedom. It moved people to overcome their fears and openly confront dictators such as in East Germany and Eastern Europe about 22 years ago.
Some of those courageous men and women are with me here tonight. And the Medal of Freedom you so kindly bestowed on me, you also bestowed on them.
The yearning for freedom cannot be contained by walls for long. It was this yearning that brought down the Iron Curtain that divided Germany and Europe, and indeed the world, into two blocs.
America stood resolutely on the side of freedom. It is to this resolve that we Germans owe the unity of our country in peace and freedom.
Also today, the yearning for freedom may well make totalitarian regimes tremble and fall. We have followed with great interest and empathy the profound changes in North Africa and in the Arab world.
Freedom is indivisible. Each and every one has the same right to freedom, be it in North Africa or Belarus, in Myanmar or Iran.
Still, the struggle for freedom is demanding far too many sacrifices, and claiming far too many victims. My thoughts are with our soldiers, our policemen, and the many, many volunteers who try to help. I humbly bow to all those who risk their lives for the cause of freedom.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the horrible attacks of 9/11. Over the past 10 years, we have stepped up significantly our joint fight against terror and for freedom and this in many ways.
We see that living in freedom and defending freedom are two sides of one and the same coin, for the precious gift of freedom doesn’t come naturally, but has to be fought for, nurtured, and defended time and time again.
Sometimes this may seem like an endless fight against windmills. But you see, my personal experience is a quite different one. What we dare not dream of today may well become reality tomorrow.
(Speaking in English.) Neither the chains of dictatorship nor the fetters of oppression can keep down the forces of freedom for long. This is my firm conviction that shall continue to guide me. In this, the Presidential Medal of Freedom shall serve to spur me on and to encourage me.
Mr. President, thank you for honoring me with this prestigious award. (Applause.)
7:51 P.M. EDT