Commentary on the results of THE EUROPEAN LIST: Goethe-Institute's online opinion poll
Although not a representative survey on the canon of European culture, it is certainly noteworthy. The Goethe Institute conducted the survey in 30 countries: 22 member countries of the EU, including France and Poland, Serbia – an EU candidate state, and 7 neighbouring Muslim countries – from Morocco via Turkey to Jordan.
The researchers received 22,235 answers, which is not an overwhelming number. What noticeably influenced the overall picture of the European "cultural canon" that emerged was the context of the poll (the surveyed population). The most numerous respondents (15%) were Germans, the rest being non-Germans who visited Goethe Institute websites due to their interest in German culture and language. All the same, the results are thought-provoking.
What young people – more than half of respondents were under 40 – find to be especially precious in Europe are culture, a sense of community, and freedom of travel. Besides these, the list of the top 10 most important assets of the Old Continent includes: history, the euro, peace, democracy, and cultural variety. The geography of the power of attraction of these European assets varies greatly. Poles cherish "community" most, Italians – "unity", the Dutch and the Belgians – "the euro", and Germany – "variety", however that notion is to be construed. The French, Portuguese and Estonians feel most "European", with Germans and Poles ranking somewhere in the middle, and the most sceptical Europeans being the Irish, Latvians, and Turks. The fact that Jordanians, Egyptians, and Moroccans visiting Goethe Institutes also consider themselves "actually also" European comes as a surprise result of the survey.
Respondents look to the future of Europe with moderate optimism. Only 12% assess it unreservedly as "very good". What must provide a reason for disappointment is indicating the Eiffel Tower as the most significant building in Europe. The overwhelming victory of Parisian iron scaffolding over the Acropolis in Athens and the Basilica of St Peter in Rome seems to be tantamount to the surrender of the European spirit before the omnipresent culture of architectural gadgets of European modernity. The fact that the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, and Cologne Cathedral find themselves on the list may possibly be considered homage paid by the participants to the patron of the organising institutes. Even Goethe himself would probably have voted for Strasbourg Cathedral, to which he devoted an insightful essay. Luckily, many politically correct Greeks, Italians, and French pointed to the European Parliament as the most significant European piece of architecture.
One can obviously argue about whether Life is Beautiful, a tragicomedy by Roberto Benigni, is really the best film and Don Quixote – the most moving European literary figure. Nevertheless, respondents' perception of the grotesque as being at the centre of European cinema and literature is definitely noteworthy – and a valid observation. Furthermore, the fact that so many German films (worthy as they are) are mentioned – Goodbye Lenin, The Lives of Others, and Wings of Desire – seems an understandable gesture by fans of Goethe Institutes from all over Europe, while recognition of the art of printing as the most important European invention – a long time before the steam engine – really gets to the heart of the matter.
However, respondents are not quite sure about Europe's most significant contribution to world cultural heritage. They cannot make up their minds between democracy, the art of printing, classical music, philosophy, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – giving each only a modest share of votes. The problem of an excess of choice, an embarras de richesses, takes its revenge in the shape of indecision. The "Goetheans" rightly consider Leonardo da Vinci to be the European artist, a position one would rather hope owes nothing to Dan Brown's global blockbuster. Pity only that Beethoven, Bach, and Shakespeare ranked further down the list.
That friends of Goethe Institutes believe Germany to be the driving force of the EU and Berlin one of the most attractive European cities is as understandable as Angela Merkel's first place on the list of the most important politicians of Europe. However, the fact that none other than Winston Churchill took second place is exceedingly interesting. This is evidence of recognition of the persistent British resistance after France withdrew from the war in the summer of 1940 and of the year of almost solitary struggle with Nazi totalitarianism in defence of not only its own but also European democracy. Evidence of recognising the moral dimension of politics can be seen in awarding primacy to Willy Brandt over Konrad Adenauer and to Charles de Gaulle over Margaret Thatcher, although these results of the questionnaire are not fully representative either.
The best evidence of instability and indecision among the participants in the questionnaire is the ranking of the best sportspeople. Each contemporary gladiator appearing on the list is, let's face it, dispensable. Is Novak Djokovic, a Serb tennis player, really the best? The votes of patriotic Serbian Goethe fans were decisive. Everyone praises their own. The question about the best European cuisine is an entirely different matter. Despite the avalanche of votes for French cuisine, it was Italian that won by a broad margin.
Overall, this survey of the frame of mind of friends of Goethe proves as intriguing as it is remarkable.