More than 1300 Germans were nominated for the competition to identify the 10 most important Germans, and a "top 100" list unveiled on Friday night contained a number of surprises. A winner will be selected from the 10 finalists in three weeks.
In a country long weighted down by guilt from World War Two and wary of idolising national heroes as a reaction to the ultra-national Nazi era, the Best German contest reflects a growing, if still modest, sense of German patriotism.
While sports heroes like Formula One champion Michael Schumacher, Wimbledon title winner Boris Becker, tennis queen Steffi Graf and football World Cup winner Franz Beckenbauer made it into the top 40, supermodel Claudia Schiffer and Nobel-prize winning author Guenter Grass weren't even among the first 100.
Organised by Bild newspaper and ZDF television, Germans now have three weeks to cast ballots for the top 10 finalists to pick the Best German in a competition modelled on a popular British BBC television programme called Great Britons that selected war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill ahead of Shakespeare, Darwin and Princess Diana.
"(Former chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Willy Brandt is my choice for the best because he changed the image of Germany all around the world and presented to the world a new generation of a new Germany," said former Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher in an appeal for Brandt.
Others to reach the top 10 included former chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Otto von Bismarck, poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, church reform leader Martin Luther, printing press inventor Johannes Gutenberg, and Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans - Hitler resistance fighters executed by the Nazis.
Notable among the top 100 were the high number of those famed for resisting Hitler - Georg Elsner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg. The list was rigged to exclude Hitler and most of his entourage, but Nazi, and later US, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was ranked the 63rd.
Top 10 Germans
Johann Sebastian Bach
Otto von Bismarck
Sophie & Hans Scholl
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Another surprise entry in the top 100 were the so-called Truemmerfrauen - the myriad of women in bucket brigades who cleared away the rubble from bombed out cities after the war. They got the 88th place, ahead of former world champion boxer Max Schmeling, now 97 years old.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was ranked 82nd behind Olympic figure skating champion Katarina Witt in 70th, nationalistic composer Richard Wagner at 69th and sultry actress Marlene Dietrich in 50th position.
Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (52), trailed rock singer Nena (38), known abroad for her 1984 antiwar song 99 Luftballons, Nazi-era businessman Oskar Schindler who saved Jews from death camps (37), Beckenbauer (36), Becker (35), Graf (32), Schumacher (26) and composer Ludwig van Beethoven (12).
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was 13th, ahead of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (20) - a controversial pick because Austria claims the composer as its native son.
An early glimpse of the voting for the final contest that began on Friday showed the trend favouring Einstein, a physicist who fled Nazi Germany for the United States, ahead of Adenauer and Goethe. Marx, the German-born communist philosopher and author of Das Kapital, and Bismarck were in 10th and ninth place after the first five minutes of voting.