The formerly communist east voted for Karl Marx and the west picked post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
In Friday's emotion-packed finale to the three month German television competition, a larger number of ballots cast in the more populous west carried the first West German leader Adenauer to the top overall ahead of Martin Luther, with Marx in third.
Despite massive support for Marx in the formerly communist east and passion-filled arguments from backers, the co-author of the Communist Manifesto could not catch Adenauer, the patriarch who led West Germany out of the Nazi era and post-war gloom.
The 3.3 million votes cast unintentionally exposed a deep rift between the rich west and poor east. Even 13 years after unity, wages and living standards are below western levels and many easterners harbour fond memories of the communist era.
"I never would have dreamt that Karl Marx would make in into the top three of a united Germany," said his patron, a reform communist party (PDS) leader Gregor Gysi.
"Marx is a man known around the world for seeking a freer and fairer society - and some day in the future his vision will become reality"
Reform Communist Party leader
"Marx is a man known around the world for seeking a freer and fairer society - and some day in the future his vision will become reality," Gysi said. "In 10 years Marx will be voted second best German and some day after that he'll be number one."
In the contest modelled on a British television show called "Great Britons" that selected war-time leader Winston Churchill, Germans cast votes for the 100 "best Germans" from 1300 nominations. They were then whittled down to the top 10.
While Marx won more than 40% of the vote in the five eastern German states, the 19th century communist philosopher got only about 3% in the west. Adenauer, who led West Germany into NATO and a close alliance with the West, had very few votes in the east but dominated the west.
"Adenauer put us on track for its happiest and most peaceful era in German history," said Adenauer's patron, historian Guido Knopp. "He led Germany out of the Nazi era into democracy."
The PDS party had urged easterners to vote for Marx with a mass Internet campaign while Adenauer's conservative Christian Democrat party also did their own campaigning.
"I thought Willy Brandt would get more votes in the east," said journalist Friedrich Nowotny, patron of the West German Chancellor famous for policies that relaxed Cold War tensions, who was fifth. "This shows the east is still closer to Marx."
"Adenauer put us on track for its happiest and most peaceful era in German history. He led Germany out of the Nazi era into democracy"
In a country long weighed down by guilt from World War Two and wary of idolising national heroes, the "best German" contest reflects a growing, if still modest, sense of German patriotism.
Others in the top 10 included: Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans (4), Hitler resistance fighters executed by the Nazis; Johann Sebastian Bach (6), printing press inventor Johannes Gutenberg (8), 19th century chancellor Otto von Bismarck (9) and physicist Albert Einstein (10).