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Germany Waits to See Who's Best

The German TV show "Our Best" reveals the greatest German as voted by the viewing public on Saturday. The final list contains ten of the greatest minds in German history. But is it truly representative of public opinion?


Talent show finalist Daniel Küblböck smiles bravely after missing out on a Top Ten slot in the Best German poll.

The wait is nearly over. This weekend -- much to the collective relief of a nation that has wavered between hyperventilation and vegetation during the time it took to compile the final result -- the name of the best German will be revealed on the ZDF show “Unsere Besten.” As the held breaths and sighs of relief are released, the winner of “Our Best” will be held aloft as a shining example for all Germans, a person chosen by the people to represent the people.

But will they? Is the show really an honest appraisal of those considered by everyday Germans to be the best their nation has produced?

Prestigious names fill top ten slots

Portrait von Karl Marx

Karl Marx.

Consider the Top Ten; a group of pioneers, politicians and classical composers, writers and thinkers, makers and doers. From the great reformer Martin Luther to the writer and ideologue Karl Marx (picture); from Nobel peace prize winner and first Social Democrat chancellor Willy Brandt to Johannes Gutenberg, the creator of the first book press and grandfather of the modern printed word.

Not forgetting Sophie and Hans Scholl, Goethe, Einstein, Bach, von Bismarck and Adenauer – this is truly a list of great Germans and, unless a major fixing scandal is afoot, a list authentically chosen by the people.

“The first ten are all representatives of a form of high culture that the German nation has agreed on,” says Armin Nassehi, professor of sociology at Munich University. Nassehi believes that the list is typical for Germans and shows a difference in the appreciation of greatness to that of, say, the United States.

Differences in appreciation


Industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

“If one would make such a list in the United States, then there would surely be a greater number of big names from industry and business in the top 100, such as Rockefeller (picture),” says Nassehi.

“This list is connected absolutely with the German educational-middle-class tradition. The bourgeoisie, so to speak, has much stronger feelings about education, about culture and about the Reformation than economic success and the origin of industrial capitalism. This would be completely different in the United States.”

Germany’s tradition of classical education lends itself to the adulation of great thinkers and innovators. But in a country that, in modern times, has grown to be one of the most enthusiastic worldwide when it comes to sport and popular culture, it may seem odd that the Top Ten Germans list doesn't include names such as Michael Schumacher or Franz Beckenbauer.

No place for sporting heroes

Schumacher Saison 2003 Michael Schumacher Formel 1 Sieg in Indianapolis

Michael Schumacher.

Almost permanently installed world champion racing driver Schumi could only make number 26 on the starting grid despite dominating his sport at the highest level for years, and raising Germany’s profile sky-high in the process, despite his somewhat dour persona.

Franz Beckenbauer, the man they call “Der Kaiser” because of his almost regal standing in the country of his birth, captained the German soccer side to World Cup glory in 1974 and then managed the team to further success in 1990. But even he was ten spots away from Schumacher at 36, just behind the German tennis idols Boris Becker and Steffi Graf.

Odder still is that the contemporary popular figure closest to the coveted Top Ten list was talent show finalist Daniel Küblböck, a performer whose contribution to German history is negligible at best, at number 16. Only a smattering of popular figures secured other Top 30 places, people such as game show hosts Thomas Gottschalk and Günther Jauch, and German angst-rocker Herbert Grönemeyer.

What constitutes the 'best'?

Professor Nassehi says that the concept of “best” is a difficult one for most to grasp. While many dead personalities have the advantage that their life’s work is over and therefore can be judged as complete, others have little to show so far other than their “fifteen minutes of fame.” The person's overall value to Germany is an important factor.

Claudia Schiffer

Claudia Schiffer.

“People looking for the ‘best’, don't always look for certain individual things. Maybe certain faces or bodies count as being especially prestigious to a country, as profile raisers or physical representations. Claudia Schiffer, or nowadays, Heidi Klum may be recognised for their beauty and their business successes may be very significant individually, but as a collective property, that's not good enough.” Nassehi said, to explain why Schiffer came in at number 200 while Klum didn’t appear at all.

Nassehi believes that many of the names that fell short of the Top Ten -- which unsurprisingly radiates seriousness and dignity -- indicate that many in the voting audience didn't take the list completely seriously and made their votes count in less conventional ways.

“This is a big media game,” the sociologist said. “This is not what our 100 best will always be. It is just a media event.”

Renaissance of the Classics

But historian and author Guido Knopp says that those who have attempted to make a mockery of the contest by voting for populist characters have failed. He calls the Top Ten list “the Renaissance of the Classics," and insists that despite the odd aberration, the list reflects “those who have really made something of our land.”

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