My favourite German

…and how to vote for yours

For reasons that are hard to explain, and for which I shouldn’t feel it necessary to apologise, I have found recently that I’m extremely fond of Germans.

In some dark corners of the UK, this admission would be shocking, but I once spent six months following the then-cultural attaché to the German embassy in London, for a magazine story. Frank Burbach taught me to love German culture – even though I understand hardly a word of it.

So I was delighted to hear that a German TV station is running the first major celebration of “German-ness” since World War Two.

ZDF has licensed from the BBC the format of “Great Britons”, in which members of the public voted Winston Churchill the greatest of all time, and is producing a homegrown version – called “Our Best” because “Great Germans” might seem unpleasantly jingoistic.

“Germans are always talking themselves down,” said Stefan Wieduwilt, who developed the German version. “Unlike the British, for whom national identity is strong, the Germans are still searching for one.”

A great problem for ZDF has been to determine where the German border lies – something that seems to have troubled many Germans, in the last century or so, if you know what I mean.

“It was much easier for the British [programme makers] as they live on an island,” says Thomas Hargerdorn, a spokesman for the show. “But for us the constantly moving borders have caused a lot of problems.”

There has been much debate, for example, over whether to include Mozart, who was born and died in Austria. On the day the composer’s name first appeared on a long list of candidates, the Austrian ambassador lodged a formal complaint. The Polish embassy expressed similar concern about the appropriation of Copernicus.

Another difficulty was the possibility that Hitler (another Austrian) might win the most votes, if only because of a concerted effort by neo-fascists. (“Great Britons” only narrowly avoided being hijacked by supporters of a man only slightly less sinister, the twinkly-eyed actor Michael Crawford.) Consequently ZDF has put all Nazis out of the running and, for good measure, leaders of Communist East Germany.

But will ZDF mind if foreigners disrupt the poll? Or, to put that more positively: can supporters of German culture, from the far corners of the globe – including me in London – participate in this admirable exercise in Teutonic affirmation?

We can. By submitting nominations and votes through the internet.

I visit the site,, just 20 days before the closing date for nominations. So far, only 30,000 people have bothered to put names forward. (Half a million voted for Churchill alone in the British final.) The most popular include the tennis player Steffi Graf and a resistance fighter named Sophie Scholl, executed for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in 1943. Among the sportsmen, the bicyclist Jan Ullrich is running ahead of the Formula One champ, Michael Schumacher. Of other great motoring names, Carl Benz is marginally ahead of Ferdinand Porsche and Gottlieb Daimler.

On the site I find a quiz, offering the opportunity to win “Brockhaus in 15 volumes”, which sounds terrific even though I have no idea who Brockhaus is. (Further research indicates that it’s a type of German encyclopaedia.) The quiz appears in a pop-up window to which Google’s translating capability, otherwise quite helpful, cannot be applied. I take a crack at it in German all the same, and I’m surprised how many questions feature individuals whose names I know: Haydn, Marlene Dietrich, Sigmund Freud, Leonard Bernstein, Kant. I score only five out of 10 questions, and don’t bother to put my name forward for the prize. Instead, I have another go and this time – even with new questions – get seven right. But the third time I try it I get just four right – and give up.

To help get the nominations flying in, the site proposes 300 names, sorted into 12 categories. Some of the greatest Germans seem at first glance to be absent. But this is because Google translates names just like any other word: thus, in the music category, I can’t find Bach anywhere but do find a “Johan Sebastian Brook”. Elsewhere I stumble upon the founder of a denim empire, Levi Bunch, the composer Karl Heinz Stick Living, the designer Karl Camp Field, the soccer player and manager Franz Basin Farmer, the golfer Bernhard Long One (hello!) and a supermodel named Claudia Boat Operator.

But the Great German I’m looking for is Bertolt Brecht, (or “Bertolt Break”, as Google would have it). Because, odd though it may seem, I recently enjoyed a tremendous holiday with Brecht; that is, I took his Collected Poems, as published in English by Methuen, and enjoyed them a lot.

After footling around on the site for some time, I vote for Brecht and at once the website sends me an email asking me to confirm that I do indeed consider Brecht to be hot stuff. It reminds me that I nominated him for this reason: “I think his poetry is fantastic. And of course his plays are pretty good too. Good luck with the competition!” (Yes, it is rather embarrassing to re-read that.)

Having voted, I encourage friends and colleagues to do the same. Most regard the idea with a blend of pity and horror. One, when I asked her to name her favourite German, says with ill-concealed scorn: “Phuh! I dunno. Probably Bate-hoven.” But another hits the internet at once, votes for Albrecht Durer, and confidently asserts that this is the name to watch.

We shall see.

If this inspires you to nominate your own great German – as I hope it will – I should add that the format for Great Britons has attracted interest from broadcasters around the world. There may one day be a “Best In The World”. Patriotic Brits, conscious of this, may prefer to sabotage the results in any country, such as Germany, whose most eminent citizens seem potentially capable of beating Churchill.

So instead of voting for Brecht you may wish to nominate some Deutscher duffer instead.

Either way, I urge you to get online and cast your votes: but will it be Bate-hoven, Brecht or Claudia Boat Operator?

First published 2003 in The Financial Times