4 Questions with Christian Hänel

Interview Christian Haenel © DWIH New York

The DWIH New York had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Hänel, President of the “American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation” (American Friends of AvH), one of our main supporters.

Hello Christian, tell us a bit about yourself and your background. 

I am a transatlanticist by conviction. Ever since I first listened to Bruce Springsteen and read John Steinbeck when I was young, I knew that I wanted the United States to be part of my life and my job. I went on to study US history and economics at my hometown University of Bielefeld, and later at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. After working in the for-profit sector for 5 years in sales and marketing, I turned my eye on the philanthropic sector and joined the Robert Bosch Stiftung, one of the biggest European foundations. There, I enjoyed a career that took me all the way from trainee to Senior Vice President, International Relations and Member of the Executive Board. For many years, I was able to shape the international portfolio of the foundation, including Europe, Asia, Northern Africa—and especially the transatlantic programs.

Since January 2023, you have been the President of American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Could you share with our readers what attracted you to this position and what the organization stands for? What influence do Alexander von Humboldt’s ideas and work, more than 150 years after his death, still have on the organization?

I was very excited when American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation asked me to become their new President. Having worked in transatlantic relations for two decades from the European side of the pond, I am very much looking forward to switching perspectives, and to working and living in the United States.

Alexander von Humboldt crossed boundaries in thought and in action—he did not believe in borders at all; neither between disciplines, nor between cultures. We as an organization are trying to follow in his footsteps. American Friends of AvH stands for engaging research exchange and cooperation on topics of global relevance, such as climate change, AI, and international security, to name just a few, across the Atlantic and across sectors. Our main asset are the almost 6,000 American Humboldtians. They are alumni of the foundation’s various international fellowship programs that have been in place since 1953. Together with the Humboldtians, other great minds on both sides of the Atlantic, and influential voices in various fields we aim at creating tangible impact when it comes to tackling the pressing issues our world is facing.

American Friends has a “share and pair relationship” with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. We represent the Foundation in the United States and, being an independent 501 c (3) ourselves, we develop and run our own programs to move the transatlantic mission forward. Like Alexander von Humboldt, we are always on the lookout for inspired partners who share our conviction, be they from academia, from philanthropy, from the public, or from the corporate sector: If you want to join us in making a positive impact on transatlantic relations, please reach out!

The annual topic of the DWIH is “The Resilient Society.” As a supporter of DWIH New York and new in your position, what kinds of fresh ideas do you have for collaborating with us on this or other topics?

In order to be resilient as a society, we need common ground. Polarization is poison. There needs to be a certain set of facts and convictions that everyone can buy into, regardless of personal, political, or geographic identity. For a long time, science had provided this common ground. Scientific facts used to be respected—across the aisle and across society. The interpretation of the facts could differ a lot and lead to substantial arguments, but the science itself was never in question. This changed when the idea of “alternative facts” entered the mainstream of political and societal discourse. We must counter this trend. We must re-build trust in science so that our democratic societies based on the rule of law and an appreciation of science can stay resilient in face of the great challenges we face internally and externally. For this enormous task, we need to pool resources. American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation stands ready to join the effort. It will not be easy, but we cannot achieve anything if we stay in our own cozy science bubble. We need to reach out—across sectors and, most importantly, across political and societal boundaries.

Is there anything else that you want to share with our readers?

My wife Anja and I and our two daughters Ava and Lea are thrilled to be relocating to the United States—as soon as we get our visas. Anja is excited to look for opportunities to bring her extensive experience in marketing and communications overseas. Ava is nine years old and cannot wait to enroll at the German International School. She already had a great day of orientation. Our little one Lea will celebrate her first birthday in the United States. We are very curious to see—or rather hear—if Lea’s first words will be German. Or English. American English of course.