Chris Stahl

Chris is a journalist, author, and film director currently working as a political advisor and rhetorician in Berlin. He is also co-founder of the European Leadership and Debate Academy (ELDA), which, in cooperation with the German Federal Foreign Office, teaches leadership, communication, and strategic thinking to Eastern and Middle European youths. He is also a director and film producer, well known for “Athena” (2019), “Gangsterläufer” (2011) and “Neue Nähe” (2011).

Tell us briefly about yourself. What is it you do?

I tell stories. That’s basically it. I do not think of myself as a very talented individual or anything like that. What I am is a story-teller. All I can do is recount my own story – as film director, author, coach and adviser – and help others to communicate theirs. I work with politicians, CEOs, companies and NGOs to help them share their stories and I have also established the European Leadership and Debate Academy (ELDA) which aims to empower young people in Middle and Eastern European countries and gives them communication tools so they can learn how to tell their stories effectively.

If you do not know what it feels like to stumble and fall, and land on the ground, you will not appreciate the times when you are soaring up high. - Chris Stahl
© Steffi von der Heid

“I do not think of myself as a very talented individual or anything like that. What I am is a story-teller. All I can do is recount my own story and help others to communicate theirs.”

How did you career develop? Where did it all start?

A lot of things in my life did not exactly happen the way they should have. I always wanted to become an actor or a film director (and I did become one eventually!), but when I was younger, 18 or 19, I was too shy to truly pursue this dream. Instead, I applied for a course in England and studied literature, history and philosophy at the Queen’s College, Oxford. When I returned to Germany, I started a PhD in literature and also became the chief editor of a newspaper called “Europäische Zeitung” and the Bonn city magazine “Schnüss” (which means “speak out”) at the same time. This is when I realized that the ivory tower of academia is not really for me. I wanted to do something rather than just talk about it. As cheesy as it sounds, I wanted to make a change and improve the world in some way – be it a small or big difference. So I left my role at the university (I had become an assistant professor by then), moved to Berlin and became a journalist.

This was back in 1997. I started as a correspondent for the first German television and radio focusing on issues like migration, integration and asylum seekers. I also anchored a radio station Radio Multikulti, a multicultural channel broadcasting in different languages. Through this job I got involved in international support projects in the countries of former Yugoslavia.

What was your role there?

After the civil war in former Yugoslavia had ended and the recovery period began, there were a number of initiatives aimed at helping the region to rebuild itself. At that stage, about 12 years had passed since the end of the civil war in Bosnia and some of my colleagues asked me to help out and drive a van with Christmas parcels to children of Srebrenica village, the place of one of the bloodiest ethnic massacres during the civil war.

It was the winter of 2007. The idea was to meet the young people in the area, run some seminars, give some little gifts and, basically, share a ray of hope with the community. We got there in the middle of freezing cold winter (it was -20 degrees Celsius!) but what we saw there was even harder to bear, it was one of the most horrible scenes I have seen in my life. The war had devastated the place so much to the point that there were only two buildings restored – houses of a priest and an imam. Everything else was still in ruins and people lived in this freezing cold without any heating.

Our visit did not start off well either. The priest and the imam were not happy about us giving the children Christmas parcels we had brought. They were saying that Christmas gifts to Muslim children would hurt their religious feelings.  However, this was promptly denied by the local mothers who said that these little presents were the only bit of joy their children would have at this desperate time!

There were also remains of another “war” in Srebrenica, I realized – the conscience war. Lots of NGOs from Western Europe were visiting the war-affected region but, realistically, doing very little to help. I could see flyers and computers left there by NGOs, while people were literally living in ruins. It all seemed very superficial and aimed at clearing their conscience rather than actually helping these people.

You do not have to win the fight to be a winner. What you really need is to win against yourself and your own fear. - Chris Stahl
© Steffi von der Heid

I have to admit, I felt the same way about myself. As if I was clearing the bad feelings I had about what happened to these people by being there, bringing the parcels and trying to give them a morsel of hope. I am afraid, it was taking more hope from them than we could bring. It made me feel so bad that there was not really anything we could do to help these people. From this moment on I had this feeling that I have to do something. I wanted to find a way to bring Europe closer together. Especially so that young people from every corner of Europe – from the Baltics, to the Balkans, to the West – realize that they are part of this big community and that Europe is much more than the European Union (EU), the rules and the laws. What I saw in Srebrenica really shook me and although I left there, the idea of a truly united Europe stayed with me and my dream started to take shape.

So what were the next steps to realize your dream?

The following year, I spoke with the CEOs of Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders and they were fascinated with my ideas. I also reached out to the EU and got connected with the Secretary-General of the EU Commissioner at the time. He gave me his time and also loved my vision but was very frank with me. He said “This is a great idea but who are you to be given one or two million euros? You are a single person and if you do not bring in some big sponsor behind you, you are out.” So, unwillingly, I had to hold back my vision.

It all took off again in a few years’ time. This was when the Euromaidan in Ukraine was happening. It was (once again!) around Christmas time – the Orthodox Christmas in January. There were huge Christmas trees all around Ukraine and here in Germany we saw some pictures from there. All of these Christmas trees were flying EU flags along with Ukrainian flags. There was so much belief in Europe and it rekindled the feelings I had back in Srebrenica some years ago. I wrote a one-page report about the European Debate Academy and the idea behind it. This report went to a member of the German parliament who then handed it over to the foreign minister of Germany at the time, now our president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Two months later I got a call form the Foreign Ministry saying “Are you Mr Stahl? Are you still ready to go ahead with the idea of European Debate Academy in Kiev? Can you do it this year? How much money do you need?” I was gobsmacked! It felt like a miracle. This was the start of the ELDA.

So how has the European Leadership and Debate Academy (ELDA) evolved since then?

This project is what I saw as my contribution to society. It is what materialized from my initial dreams about making a change and connecting Europe in a meaningful way. While my day-to-day job is related to the subject of leadership and debate, the academy is my personal project – my baby, if you will!

The main idea of the project is to gradually create alumni network of convinced Europeans – people who want to be a part of society which understands and values the necessity of human rights, diversity, solidarity, open borders and the sharing of thoughts and ideas. What ELDA wants to do is challenge the idea of what the EU is. There is this quite arrogant, Western European, white male idea of “we tell you how democracy really works”. This project aims to show that the EU reaches beyond this limited and, frankly, appalling idea and that it can work in different ways.

The academy is open to all and currently involves a community of about 200–300 people. Our plans for 2020 were, of course, affected by the outbreak of COVID-19 but one of the main events in the pipeline is a female leaders’ summit.

What other projects are you involved in at the moment?

I have been running my business, Stahlmedien, for 15 years now. It all started as freelance work and now has developed into a CEO consultancy agency. We advise and coach companies and NGOs, as well as politicians that we believe in. I am stressing that because Stahlmedien is not a PR company but a values-driven business – we only work together with individuals and organizations if we share the same values as they do. I am proud to say we have recently received an award as the company of the future in recognition of the training we designed that shows how to use words effectively to fight populism. This award is an initiative by the German government and the nominees are normally villages and towns. We happened to be the only company to be nominated and this makes the recognition even more special.

What has been the biggest struggle in your path so far? How did you overcome it?

Well, judging things from the current situation [reference to the 2020 global pandemic], maybe the biggest struggle is yet to come! No one really knows where this will take us and I think it is very important that we do not give up our rights, freedoms and values we have been fighting for in the last 200–300 years just because we are succumbing to the fear of the virus.

If we talk about personal struggles, I am not a kind of person who sails through life to achieve great things. There have always been difficulties and things are never straightforward. But, honestly, I would not want it any other way. I think if you do not know what it feels like to stumble and fall, and land on the ground, you will not appreciate the times when you are soaring up high.

I would say there are two types of people. Some go through life as if it is a flatland savannah – all is fine, smooth and clear ahead of them. Others – I call them mountain and valley personalities – climb up a mountain only to roll downhill again and start all over. But that is just a way it is and you have to learn to accept it. I look at it as a “hero’s journey”. In my view, you cannot become a hero if you do not know how to fall. What you may perceive as failure is actually a chance to transform and grow. In a way, it is a great advantage and a gift to know what it is like to fail.

“If you do not know what it feels like to stumble and fall, and land on the ground, you will not appreciate the times when you are soaring up high.”

I am reminded of my first and last real boxing fight in London when I went into the ring and fought for three rounds. Some people mix it up: they think that you have to win the fight to be a winner. What you really need is to win against yourself and as soon as you climb through the ropes, you can consider yourself a winner – a winner against your own fear. The way I see it, you do not have to win all the time, but you do need to climb through the ropes of your next challenge and push yourself forward in this way. That is one of the main lessons I have learned in the past 20–30 years of my life – climb through the ropes.

“You do not have to win the fight to be a winner. What you really need is to win against yourself and your own fear.”

So you are also a boxer?

I have been for a couple of years now! Boxing is my hobby, albeit a serious one. I also am a southpaw – a left-handed boxer.

I never imagined myself engaging in something like boxing. In contrast to my personality now, as a child I was very timid and would get beaten up by other boys. Having moved to a small village from Cologne, I was somewhat an outsider in my school. Other kids called me an asylum seeker, told me I was really bad at sports (which prevented me from joining a football club where I could practice) and constantly attacked me. So much so that one time I even had to go to hospital because of a broken nose. It took me years to learn how to defend myself.

Ironically, I only started boxing when I hurt my knee and could no longer play football. This is when I realized what a beautiful sport boxing is. You need to look beyond the superficial image of boxing as a violent street fighting and consider the philosophy of this sport, to appreciate its beauty. Normally, people focus on the combat aspect of boxing but, interestingly, a lot of ancient philosophers and famous peacemakers, such as Nelson Mandela, were boxers.

Boxing is not about throwing blows; it is about respect for your opponent. You do not win a boxing match if you merely hit another with all your force. To win you need to overcome your fears, respect the other boxer, and judge carefully when it is time to attack and when it is time to go into defence – in other words, think strategically. You need to remember that you are in the ring for a number of rounds not just for the one you are in at the moment. Boxing is more like a dance than a fight. It is all about choreography and even somewhat akin to meditation. From my experience, football is a much more aggressive sport. When you are boxing, you have to look your opponent in the eye all the time and there is real respect between boxers.

I try to promote boxing among women and girls too. In all my female leadership projects I try to include boxing courses as a way to develop leadership skills. All around the world young women are told how they should behave – do not be too loud, act as a lady, and so on. I say no: do not be a lady, be a boxer! Fight like a girl!

You are also the author of the film “Gangsterläufer” (Gangster Runner) and the book “In den Gangs von Neukölln: Das Leben des Yehya E.”(In the Gangs of New Cologne: The Life of Yehya E.). Could you tell us about the inspiration for and background of these projects?

At the moment there is a big discussion, at least in Germany, about the Lebanese clans and criminality. When I started the production of the film this was not a hot topic at all so it must have been one of the first projects to look into this problem. The issues of clan violence or Arabic criminality and religious aspect of it all were not my focus, though. What I was looking at was problems of integration and living together. My approach was from a very personal perspective. I had a neighbour – a very clever boy, fluent in German, gentle, well-spoken young gentleman called Yehya. Our neighbourhood was a mixture of artists and hipsters and the criminal Arabs living together and I was so proud to have found this admirable young man in this environment. He used to ask me to help him with his homework and would always address me as “Mr Stahl” even after I said to him to just call me Chris many times. Unbelievably good manners!

This boy attended a school that actually became quite infamous in Germany as the first school where the teachers refused to teach because they were unable to deal with the young criminals in the classroom. This sparked a huge debate in the country that lasted years but it was actually because of my book and film that the teachers found out who was the main person behind the problem.

It all started when I was doing another video project with young children for Berlin council. During one of the shoots, as we were filming, I realized that the children were afraid of something that was behind me. I turned around to see what was causing such fear in these children’s eyes. What I saw was my young gentleman neighbour, Yehya, being nothing like his normal self and acting more like an animal. I could not believe what I saw!

Later I approached him in the school playground and asked him what was going on, why he was acting this way, what was the reason for this new personality – so different to what I was used to. We ended up talking for two hours. It was like he had been waiting for someone to ask him these questions. The following day I got hold of a camera and decided to record our conversation. I did not even know how to properly handle the camera so loads of things came out wrong, of course, but that did not really matter. The most important thing was that I had my gentleman friend on camera, openly talking about his life. We did not speak about integration, refugees, Arab communities and so on but rather talked about why such a gentle boy could have all this cruelty and criminality in him. Why young boys like him were acting the way he did. It was a very personal conversation and I was trying to understand how I could not see this before when this boy had been right in front of me the whole time. I always thought I had enough empathy and a decent understanding of human nature to pick up the hidden signs and non-verbal communication and yet I was oblivious to the fact that my young neighbour had two personalities, that there was this dark side to him.

This was the beginning of a seven-year long journey through which I followed Yehya and his family. In that time, I visited refugee camps and all the prisons in Berlin – I followed my neighbour as well as his brothers through both youth prisons and, later, adult ones. The whole project cost me a lot of time and money and caused quite a few headaches.

It took me seven years to prepare the film and three more years to finish the book. In total, I spent more than a decade of my life following the lives of the gangs and families involved, so I think I acquired quite a lot of first-hand knowledge about Arab families, struggles of people in Arabic communities and integration problems. But I also had a very good insight into the appeal of the gangster life. I am not talking about really atrocious crimes, like murder, but things like theft and robbery. If we are really honest with ourselves, somewhere in our hidden darkest fantasies, most of us will admit that it would be interesting to see what it is like to do the forbidden thing, to be a little bit evil, a little bit criminal.

Both the film and the book focus on the Arabic community and the gangs and clans within it. They tell a very specific story of a boy with two faces growing up in two parallel worlds that never overlap. However, through looking at this topic and this story, the project also explores the bigger question of criminality of human beings.

Chris Stahl - Establish not the borders of countries but the borders of values. Make it clear that we want a society where human rights are accepted and valued regardless of where you come from.
© Steffi von der Heid

Do you still keep in touch with the main characters of the film and the book?

We do keep in touch and write to each other from time to time. There was a time when we were very close; he was like a little brother to me. But so many things happened in all this time and so the relationship has changed. I got really involved in this family’s life trying to help them but if you are involved in criminal life from a very young age, it is not easy to disengage from it. In the end I had to acknowledge that the best I could do for these people is to tell their story as it is.

If you do not know what it feels like to stumble and fall, and land on the ground, you will not appreciate the times when you are soaring up high. - Chris Stahl
© Steffi von der Heid
You do not have to win the fight to be a winner. What you really need is to win against yourself and your own fear. - Chris Stahl

Based on your experience with the Arabic community, what is your perspective on the issue of integration? What do you think does and does not work?

Despite the extensive experience I have gained during this project and working on both the film and the book, it would be much too arrogant to say I have a solution. But I do have some ideas and some good insights into the issue.

I think the number of migrants will only increase in years to come. In the nearer future, as the aftermath of the global pandemic we are currently facing, there will unfortunately be much more poverty and much more need. But also the ongoing issue of global warming is not just going to disappear and I believe that sooner or later we will have the climate refugees as well.

Europe is the continent of migration – we have always had it, it is not new and we could do much better to handle it. I think our main task is to define the society we want to live in. Establish not the borders of countries but the borders of values. Make it clear that we want a society where human rights are accepted and valued regardless of where you come from. A society where the same rights apply to all and where attitudes against women, LGBTQ people or other minorities are not tolerated. You have to say “yes” to diversity, to human rights, to democracy and to solidarity if you want to be part of Europe. If we establish such rules and make them the basis of the European Constitution, in my opinion, anyone should be welcomed to Europe. And those who fail to really adopt and follow such principles can go somewhere else. If you do not want to be part of the European way of life, that is fine – you do not have to be here. I call it “the contract of European society”.

I would also say that we should maintain secularity in public life. We have now had a couple of hundred years where we tried to get away from religion as the main drive of society. I have a lot of respect for religion but it is a private matter. It is perfectly fine to follow the principles you believe in when you are in the privacy of your own space but I think schools, universities and the judicial system have no place for religion – whatever faith it may be.

“Establish not the borders of countries but the borders of values. Make it clear that we want a society where human rights are accepted and valued regardless of where you come from.”

We should teach our kids universal values, including those of solidarity and diversity. I believe that if we had done this back in the early 90s, when the family of Yehya [the central character of “Gangsterläufer”] came to Germany, if we had welcomed them with principles of human rights and respect, their story could have been different.

I am talking about this Arab family because I got to know them so closely but this not something that is only relevant to Muslim communities or to Germany, or Europe. We can go across the world: there are German minorities in Australia that are so conservative and so closed up in their communities that there are real Nazis among them, some of them still believe in Keiser! So this is not a problem of Islam, or Arabs – this is a problem of isolation.

It is a really big problem that foreign people, migrants and refugees are not normally allowed to work. I think the biggest drive of integration is working together. If you do not allow people to work for 10–15 years, how are they supposed to become part of society? Give them a chance to prove themselves. And if they fail, if they do not want to work, if they do not accept the principles of our society, then OK, they have to face the consequences. The problem is we do not even give them this chance. We are focusing on the wrong things at the moment.

What would you say are the most important values for you in your life? What values drive you?

Perhaps one of the main values that drive my work is fighting for equality and justice. I accept that not everyone has the same chances in life but I strongly believe that the rights of everyone should be equal.

I place great value on the ability to listen and learn – to learn continuously and to stay hungry for new ideas. It is also important to know that your own truth is not the only one. There are so many different points of view, new ideas and valuable insights. You need to really listen and show respect before you say you are better than others. The world is full of distinctive perspectives and my own perspective is just one of them.

It may sound a bit crazy but I am a big fan of preconceptions. I do think we need preconceptions – positive or negative – about other people because without them we cannot structure the world. But, importantly, we must know that preconception is exactly that – an assumption and not the truth. There is great power in being able to reflect on your preconceptions and recognize when they are wrong. We need to be open to having our ideas challenged so that we see and consider all the alternative perspectives and do not just think that our way is automatically the right way.

What is your recipe to achieve what you are aiming for?

Do not be afraid to fail. You can only be successful if you are ready to fall. Any failures and any wrong steps should be viewed as part of the journey. Do not shy away from wounds and scratches. Maybe there was a better way, maybe there was an easier route to success, but if you hadn’t followed the path you did, life would not have taught you the lessons you learned and you wouldn’t be the person you are today.

“Do not be afraid to fail. You can only be successful if you are ready to fall.”

There are so many things I did wrong. But I do not look back in anger. If you ask me “what were the best days of your life?”, I will always repeat: today. And tomorrow will be even better. Life can be an endless “hero’s journey” and it is truly worth travelling.

And one last thing (I know it will sound clichéd, but who cares!): I do believe that we can change the world for the better. There is you, there is me, there is all of us – it is our joint responsibility and we can do it – if we do it together.

“We can change the world for the better. There is you, there is me, there is all of us – it is our joint responsibility and we can do it – if we do it together.”


Name: Chris Stahl
Industry: Communication, storytelling, filmmaking
Country: Germany