This Europe: Old rivalries keep Europe divided on history's heroes

John Lichfield
Thursday 06 March 2003 01:00
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The greatest Europeans of history are Winston Churchill, Leonardo da Vinci and, er, Joschka Fischer.

A survey of European public opinion – or rather a survey of whether there is a European public opinion – has produced a fascinating, but somewhat muddled, result.

That Mr Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, topped the "open" category, closely followed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, was a tribute to the disciplined voting of Germans for their own politicians.

Against the stereotype, the British most often chose figures from other European countries: President Jacques Chirac and the Emperor Napoleon each got 3 per cent of the British vote. The French voted largely for French figures, past and present, but 3 per cent went for Winston Churchill and 1 per cent for Tony Blair.

In two other categories, suggested lists of great Europeans of modern times and ancient times, something much closer to a cross-frontier, European consensus emerged. The top three "modern" Europeans were Churchill, Marie Curie and Charles de Gaulle. The top three "ancient" Europeans were Leonard da Vinci, Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther. William Shakespeare came fifth.

The survey was organised by two French historians with the help of polling organisations in six countries, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. The intention was to discover whether there was any such thing as a "European collective memory" or just a collection of national memories.

Philippe Joutard, a historian who will give a lecture on the findings today at the headquarters of Unesco in Paris, said the results were disappointing. He blamed the teaching of history and culture, which tended to start from a national, not a European, viewpoint.

"Most people went for figures from their own countries," he said. "But there is no reason why a European collective memory should not emerge in time, if you consider how little has been done to create one."

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