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Best Germans: Adenauer Beats Marx and Luther

Germany's East-West Divide Continues


Konrad Adenauer

Konrad Adenauer ranked number one in the west.

Foto: ZDF
It wasn't a condition for being chosen, but it turns out that the ten greatest Germans of all time are all dead. There's only one woman in the Top 10 (and very few in the Top 100). The Austrian composer Mozart has been adopted by the Germans to take 20th place. But the biggest surprise may be how Karl Marx took the third spot.

The German public television network ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) asked Germans to vote for the greatest German of all time. Over a three-month period that ended in November, ZDF ran six TV programs to promote its “Unsere Besten” poll. Early on 1,300 candidates were narrowed down to 200 of the “best” Germans. That list included personalities, living and dead, in just about every field of endeavour — from art and literature to science, from sports and entertainment to philosophy.

ZDF also invited prominent Germans to “sponsor” a particular candidate. Gregor Gysi, a well-known eastern politician (PDS) became a patron (Pate) for Karl Marx, while the historian Guido Knopp represented Adenauer. Eventually, an alphabetical Top 10 list was chosen and people were asked to vote (via the Internet, telephone, text messaging, or postcard) for the one person on that list they considered to be the greatest German of all time. Here are the Top 10 results announced by ZDF on November 28, 2003:

  1. Konrad Adenauer
  2. Martin Luther
  3. Karl Marx
  4. Hans und Sophie Scholl
  5. Willy Brandt
  6. Johann Sebastian Bach
  7. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  8. Johannes Gutenberg
  9. Otto von Bismarck
  10. Albert Einstein

You may or may not agree with the final Top 10 ranking, but one significant thing the ZDF poll revealed was quite unintentional: the Berlin Wall is still standing in German minds. The 3.3 million votes in the ZDF contest showed that 13 years after German reunification, the country's east-west divide is as strong as ever. While western Germans (Wessis) voted overwhelmingly for Konrad Adenauer, about 40 percent of eastern Germans (Ossis) picked Karl Marx for the number one spot.

Adenauer led West Germany as chancellor during its post-war rebuilding from 1949 to 1963. (If you want to learn more about Adenauer, you can read our Adenauer profile.) Karl Marx was the German philosopher whose ideas led to the Communist Manifesto and socialist states like East Germany.

The voting for “Unsere Besten” split sharply along geographic lines. Who “our best” was depended largely on which part of Germany voters were living in. Many eastern Germans, tired of lower wages and higher unemployment compared to the western part of Germany, may have voted for a communist just to make a point. But they are outnumbered by western Germans almost three to one, so Adenauer won out in the end. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was selected for second place. But without the eastern vote, Marx would have placed far lower in the rankings.

The ZDF contest was modeled after a similar British television program and poll in which Winston Churchill was chosen as the greatest Briton of all time. Critics pointed out that the German ZDF poll was more of a popularity contest than a scientific, logical review of historical figures in German history, including the present. Only a few years ago, for instance, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who presided over German reunification in the early 1990s, would have certainly ranked higher than his 13th place position in the ZDF contest. But recent political financing scandals tarnished his image and reduced his standing. Timing is everything in history, and especially in popularity contests. Others pointed out that the average age of ZDF viewers is 58, giving the contest results a senior bias.

Nevertheless, the outcome seems to confirm that Germans value enduring historical figures over contemporary entertainers and sports figures. Past tennis stars Steffi Graf (32) and Boris Becker (35) were ranked behind former chancellors Helmut Schmidt (21) and Ludwig Erhard (27), although Formula One race driver Michael Schumacher, the world's highest-paid sports figure, earned the 26th position. But Germany's current chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, placed a distant 82!

Another interesting phenomenon revealed by the ZDF poll was a modest trend towards more patriotic attitudes. Germans, with their World War II history and Third Reich guilt (Hitler was not a candidate), have traditionally been reluctant flag-wavers. But strong political leaders such as Adenauer, Willy Brandt (5), and the “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck (9) ranked higher than many German artists, entertainers, inventors, or scientists. (Albert Einstein barely made it into the top ten list.) Ironically, voter participation in the ZDF contest was higher than that for most recent political elections in Germany.

No, it wasn't a scientific survey, but the television contest to name the greatest German of all time did reveal some interesting things about Germany and Germans today.

More: Top 100 Germans and Famous Germans

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