How can we create meaning

"We make it"

"I say quite simply: Germany is a strong country. The motive with which we approach these things must be: We have achieved so much - we can do it! We can do it, and wherever something stands in our way, it has to be overcome, it has to be worked on. The federal government will do everything in its power - together with the states, together with the municipalities - to achieve just that. "[1]

For the tenth time in her term of office, Chancellor Angela Merkel faced the questions of the assembled capital press on August 31, 2015 at a so-called summer press conference, when the decisive words were spoken, which are already being spoken today as the Signature of their chancellorship apply: "We can do it!" The quoted speech passage, consisting of around 70 words, is reduced to the three words that are famous today. It is unclear whether they fell spontaneously or were noted on the speech slip in front of her. In any case, Merkel did not read it directly, as can be seen in the television recording.

In mid-July the Chancellor declared at a dialogue event in a Rostock school: "If we now say: 'You can all come, you can all come from Africa, and you can all come' - we cannot do that either", [ 2] and thus made the Palestinian refugee girl Reem Sahwil cry. "The supposed key sentence of the refugee chancellor (...) was only preceded by the opposite finding a month earlier," the journalist Robin Alexander later noted. [3] Much has since been speculated and kitchen psychologized about how much the encounter with the then 15-year-old student had changed the Chancellor's attitude. In any case, it took less than six weeks from Rostock "We can't do that" to Berlin "We can do it".

The summer press conference on Monday marked the start of an eventful week. Alan Kurdi's body was washed up on the Turkish coast on Wednesday. The image of the two-year-old Syrian boy caused horror around the world. In the meantime, the humanitarian situation of the refugees at Budapest Ostbahnhof worsened so much that on Friday hundreds set out on foot over the autobahn towards Austria to get to Germany. In the night from Friday to Saturday (September 4th and 5th) the Chancellor decided, after consulting her Austrian counterpart Werner Faymann, not to stop the people by force, but to take them to Germany. Merkel's "We can do it" preceded these key events. But in retrospect, these three words seem like the background noise of the German autumn 2015. Together with selfies showing Merkel with refugees, they were often misinterpreted as an invitation to Germany. Nobody who had to flee from hardship and misery, war and violence had to be "invited". In retrospect, a meaning was ascribed to the sentence that it did not originally have. [4]

Although - or possibly precisely because - the Chancellor's sentence was formulated in a very vague way, it had such an effect. At the same time, he raised questions: What is politically linked to the "We can do it" attitude? Who is we"? What is this exactly"? And what about those who don't want to do "that" at all?

Who is "we" and what is "that"?

It is interesting that Merkel almost avoided the personal pronoun "I" in her entire statement and instead spoke of "we" and "us". So rhetorically everything came down to a big "we" right from the start. At first the sentence was directed inwards: Every single citizen could feel addressed by the "we" - or not. Because the press conference was still completely under the impression of Merkel's visit to a refugee accommodation in Heidenau in Saxony the previous week, during which she was insulted and insulted from a hateful crowd. In the light of this event, Merkel declared that "we" exclude all those "who question the dignity of other people": hate preachers, perpetrators of violence, arsonists, agitators, xenophobes. In contrast, the federal, state and local governments as well as the many helpers from civil society were explicitly included.

A year later, when asked about the "we", Merkel said: "I meant myself as Federal Chancellor, plus all politicians who claim to be able to cope with this task, and of course I also meant the many volunteers, the aid organizations, the economy and the rest of society, ultimately all of us (...) But the We go beyond Germany: We Europeans have to manage to secure the EU's external borders and at the same time maintain freedom of movement within the Schengen area - if you think further want, all those from whose regions the refugees come are also included in the We. In other words, all those who can and must contribute when it comes to dealing with refugee crises. "[5]

Similar considerations can be made about "that" that is to be created. In her statement at the press conference, Merkel described the refugee movement towards Europe in a rather abstract way as a "central" and "huge challenge", a "great national task" and "an effort". In order to illustrate the size of the task and Germany's ability to cope with it, the Chancellor recalled German unity, the bank bailout two years earlier, the nuclear phase-out after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011 and natural disasters "which we (...) have always met resolutely and unanimously ". It then became a little more concrete when it announced an acceleration of the asylum procedure and a fair distribution of costs between the federal, state and local governments and promised increased integration efforts and long-term living and work prospects.


Merkel's "We can do it" was basically nothing new; She had often used similar phrases in connection with the financial crisis, among other things. The publicist Roger Willemsen already complained after Merkel's New Year's speech 2012/13: "Again and again I have heard it said that 'together' we could do 'it'. But what is this 'it', where is the setting for this 'together', and how resilient is this rhetoric? "[6]

Of all people, the then Vice Chancellor and SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel had already used the same words in a video podcast a few days before Merkel in August 2015: "Peace, humanity, solidarity, justice: these are among the European values. Now we have to prove them I am sure we can do it. "[7] A year later, when the press drew attention to it, he was already one of the critics of the sentence, although it was not aimed at himself but at the Chancellor.

And yet another top politician was quoted with the triad before Merkel. On August 30, 2015, one day before the Chancellor's press conference, the then Federal Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and other celebrities spoke out in favor of the admission of refugees in the "Bild am Sonntag": "I am convinced: we can do it." 8th]

But in the end it doesn't matter who can claim the copyright for the three-word sentence that has hitherto been used in everyday language: Angela Merkel pronounced it with the greatest impact, and most people in this country (only) associate it with her. Anyone who uses it today in Berlin's political business is consciously placing himself in a context, whether he rejects the content of the sentence or agrees with it. In other words: the once common phrase has lost its innocence.

A historical forerunner could perhaps be recognized in the SPD election campaign slogan from 1969: "We will create modern Germany!" In addition, various three-word phrases have gone down in German history, such as "Dare to dare more democracy" (Willy Brandt, 1969), "Freedom instead of socialism" (CDU, 1976) or "You know me" (Merkel, 2013). Merkel's sentence is most similar to what is probably the most famous three-word sentence in contemporary history, the election campaign slogan of the later US President Barack Obama: "Yes we can" (2008). Like Obama, Merkel relied on the optimistic and gripping aura of a sentence that for some sounded like a "No pasarán" (Spanish: "You will not get through"), in order to avoid all doubters and critics to face it with determination. [9]

The journalist Alfons Kaiser suspected a cartoon character in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" as the inspiration for the Chancellor's motto: With a wink he pointed out that in the refrain of the title melody of "Bob the Builder" "Yo, we can do it!" is sung. [10] Other observers, however, made a connection with Merkel's origins from a Protestant pastor's household, for example by mixing her sentence with a famous quote from Martin Luther: "We can do it, I can't help it." [11]


Merkel's sentence was in no way unconventional, and so the correspondents present at the press conference did not even notice it at first - there was neither noticeable astonishment nor any inquiries as to who or what exactly could be meant. The words also played no role in the evening "Tagesschau". In the "Tagesthemen" of the same day, however, commentator Robin Lautenbach recognized part of a Merkelian vision in the sentence: "Your vision is a picture of Germany. Equipped with the values ​​of the Basic Law, this country can also master severe crises. From reunification to Refugee question - we can do it. That is the announcement. "[12]

The headlines of the following day also did not reveal the later meaning of the sentence; instead, other parts of Merkel's statement were quoted. The "Süddeutsche Zeitung" headlined "Germany is a land of hope", the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" opened with "Merkel: Sharing responsibility for refugees". However, the leading article in the FAZ was headed "We can do it". Its author, Jasper von Altenbockum, criticized Merkel for the sentence and assumed that she had emphasized with the phrase "Germany's almost unlimited willingness to accept", but at the same time endangered European cohesion. He used Merkel's template for his own final sentence, which he reformulated from the perspective of other European countries, such as Hungary and Great Britain, in relation to Germany: "You can do it, we can't."

Other observers saw the purpose of Merkel's sentence above all as a motivation: "Rather, the Chancellor wanted to encourage people in this country, to de-dramatize hysterical interpretations and to confront the hate-capists." that Germany would take in the then unimaginable number of 800,000 people over the whole of 2015.

In October 2015, the columnist Georg Diez declared Merkel's sentence on "Spiegel Online" to be the "key to a good society". [15] At the same time, the author complained: "It is sad and also shameful how this sentence is manipulated and knowingly twisted and finally shredded in the Berlin political machine." Because for him the sentence was both a "bridge" between the Chancellor and the citizens and a "break" because it had nothing to do with party politics. It was Merkel's "civil society credo" and, in view of the welcome scenes from Munich Central Station, a "civil society reality". The FAZ editor Christian Geyer, on the other hand, criticized "We can do it" as a "belief as in neurolinguistic programming (NLP)". [16] Joachim Frank of the "Kölner Stadtanzeiger" described the sentence of the otherwise rhetorically rather sober chancellors a year later as "a stormy announcement", [17] while Robin Alexander from the "Welt" in it the "Parole of the German welcome culture", but at the same time rated it as a "prime example of emotionless and mindless language". [18]

Merkel's sentence made it easy for her opponents, because you only had to put a single word at the end to turn the positive expression into its opposite: "We can't do it" or "never", it was said. Another modification and reversal was that "We don't want to make it", as AfD politician Alexander Gauland announced in October 2015. [19] Merkel quickly lost her ability to interpret the sentence. And, of course, she was also denied sole rights of use.

Because even foreign politicians from then on used the sentence in its original language, for example the then EU Council President Donald Tusk, who in December 2015 affirmed in German in connection with a stronger protection of the external borders of the European Union: "We can do it". [20] And at the memorial hour of the German Bundestag for the victims of National Socialism in January 2016, the writer and Auschwitz survivor Ruth Klüger ended her speech in the presence of the Chancellor with a small homage: Germany's generosity in accepting refugees is the main reason why she was happy to accept to talk about "the earlier misdeeds", "here, where a contradicting role model has arisen and (...) arises, with the simple and heroic slogan 'We can do it'". [21]

The then Austrian Foreign Minister and today's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also used a three-word sentence in February 2016 at a Vienna Western Balkans Conference to which Germany was not invited, in order to consciously take a rhetorical counter position to Merkel's statement: "Austria is overwhelmed", he declaimed. [22] Nevertheless, Merkel would hardly have expected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to declare on his inaugural visit in August 2019: "We can do it". A sentence he read off and must have rehearsed, because Johnson doesn't speak German. So it was nothing more than a rhetorical swipe at the Chancellor, who took a tough stance on the question of a withdrawal treaty between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The Chancellor standing next to the British Prime Minister had to listen to the live broadcast of the press conference as her own sentence was used against her.

From the mantra to the red cloth

In the course of 2015, the sentence became Merkel's mantra, "the banal motivational sentence became a political message", even a "mantra" that the Chancellor herself quoted again and again. [23] The sentence played a minor role in the summer press conference, but in the months to come she made it clearer rhetorically and put it at the end of speeches in order to reinforce its proclamatory character. In September, for example, at the press conference with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, Merkel said: "I say again and again: We can do it and we can do it." [24] And in the program "Anne Will" three weeks later she practically went inflationary with the phrase: "We can do it, I am very, very firmly convinced of that. (...) I am very firmly convinced that we can do it. (...) We have to do it. (...) And we can do it also create. (...) People who sometimes outgrow themselves also show that they want to make it with me. "[25]

In her speech at the CDU federal party conference in December 2015 and her New Year's address in 2016, she insisted on making her appeal, of course with the addition "because Germany is a strong country". [26] At times, their advisors are said to have even considered using the sentence as the motto for the 2017 federal election campaign. [27] At the 2016 summer press conference, Merkel once again spoke of a historic task that must and can be met, and repeated: "We can do it." [28]

But the mood had long since turned. Between the two summer press conferences there were, among other things, the Cologne New Year's Eve, the resurgence of the AfD, reports from overburdened municipalities and tough political disputes over German asylum policy. According to a YouGov survey from July 2016, only 27 percent of Germans agreed with Merkel's statement at this point, while 66 percent of those questioned stated that they tend not to agree or not at all. [29] At the same time, the Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer affirmed that he could not adopt the phrase "with the best will in the world". [30] It became more and more the focal point of a heated debate about the right course in refugee policy and was apparently increasingly perceived by many as a provocation - even if Merkel was probably not intended to do so.

In September 2016, the Chancellor finally declared, under pressure from within the party, that she had used the sentence too often, so that it had been charged with a meaning that was not its own.Due to misinterpretations, it has "almost become an empty formula" which she "prefers to hardly repeat". [31] After the CDU suffered heavy losses a short time later in the election for the Berlin House of Representatives, the distance was even more pronounced. According to Merkel, the sentence has developed into an "unproductive endless loop". [32]

After that, the Chancellor only "relapsed" once - on the Political Ash Wednesday of her party in 2018 in Demmin, West Pomerania, when she declared again at the end of her speech: "I am convinced: we can do it." The journalist Stefan Braun reported at the time: "Merkel smiles at this point too. As controversial as the sentence has long been - it should belong to her. Let the others scold and rail against it. She has rediscovered it and taken possession of it." [33] He but could also continue to be used against them, for example when the FDP politician Wolfgang Kubicki attributed the racist riots in Chemnitz in August 2018 to "We can do it". [34]


Since January 2016, "We can do it!" achieved its own Wikipedia entry and thus the higher consecration of an online lexicon article. Language versions of the entry are now available in English ("we can manage this; we can do it; we can do this"), French ("Nous y arriverons!") And Dutch ("Het lukt ons wel"). Fictional cinematic processing also contributes to the historicization: In the docudrama "Die Grittenen", which was broadcast by ARD in spring 2020, Merkel's sentence is at the center of a dispute at Merkel-Sauer. The scene: The couple is sitting on the couch in front of the television, the "current affairs" are on. Everything breathes the home-style peacefulness of the evening. But then the film Merkel reacts piqued when her partner talks about a "good cartoon" about the refugee crisis. A heated discussion develops in the course of which the Chancellor's husband, who eats peanuts, accuses his wife of failing to manage the refugee crisis, while she emphasizes that "We can do it" is a "present tense sentence". But the film-Sauer continues to criticize: The sentence contains no action, it will not come true by itself. [35] Such media adaptations reinforce and increase the effect of the sentence, even if Merkel herself has long since distanced herself from it. And although the sentence has often been directed against the Chancellor, it remains associated with her - probably even if she is no longer the head of government in this country.

In his book "Widerworte", published in spring 2019, the journalist Alexander Kissler devoted an entire, thoroughly critical chapter to "We create this" and described the sentence as "flag roll call", "lament" and "authoritarian desperation call". The historian Jan Plamper, on the other hand, used Merkel's indefinite "we" to speak of the "new we" in the title of his much-praised German migration story, [37] which also includes migrants who also describe themselves as newcomers to avoid the social discrimination associated with the word "refugee". [38] The journalist Deniz Yücel even declared the words of the Chancellor in February 2020 "the most beautiful sentence by the Chancellor since Willy Brandt's 'Dare more democracy'". [39] In a kind of early obituary for Merkel's term of office, Yücel wrote about autumn 2015: "There was no alternative to Merkel's decision. It was, however, the best possible. An act of generosity, fed by the experiences of German history, including her GDR biography, and supported by one short summer of sympathy. " The sentence is therefore the "legacy" of Merkel's chancellorship. "And: Of course we can do this and everything else. It just won't be easier without Angela Merkel." The historian Edgar Wolfrum recently declared the sentence to be the Chancellor's "central principle". [40]

Despite this "advance praise", Angela Merkel made a wide rhetorical bow around "We can do it" in the past months of the crisis - although the pandemic would have allowed the encouraging motto to be repeated. Rather, another three-word sentence from her statement of August 31, 2015, which she used to urge citizens to distance themselves from hateful slogans and demonstrations against the admission of refugees, recently reached unexpected topicality: "Keep your distance ! "