When Conrad Schumann jumped over the Berlin Wall, he became a symbol of freedom. But the burden was too great.
“MANY PEOPLE were standing around, and that was good, because they distracted my colleagues. I was able to swap my loaded sub-machine- gun for an empty one before I jumped. The jump was not so difficult then. After that the gun fell noisily on the ground; with a full magazine it probably would have gone off.”
That is how the East German border guard Conrad Schumann recalled, in one of hundreds of subsequent interviews, the moment he was devoured by history. At 4pm on 15 August 1961, two days after the Communist regime began erecting the Berlin Wall, the 19-year-old soldier set off on the journey that was to define his entire life.
“My nerves were at breaking point,” he remembered. “I was very afraid. I took off, jumped, and into the car … in three, four seconds it was all over.”
A photographer mingling with onlookers on the western side of Bernauer Strasse captured the “Leap of Freedom”, and a Cold War pin-up was born. Pictures of the lanky youth soaring above coils of barbed wire in his tight uniform were blitzed across the world. Suddenly Schumann was a hero of the Free World, and in his homeland a despicable traitor. Some 2,100 East German soldiers and policemen were to follow his example.
“Welcome to the West,” bystanders shouted. But Schumann, a simple NCO, was ill-prepared for the adulation. All he asked for when he arrived at the West Berlin debriefing centre was a sandwich. He said simply that he had been angered by the spectacle of a fleeing East German child being dragged back from the West, and did not want to “live enclosed”. A fit of desperation or an act of heroism: history books rarely distinguish between the two.
But Schumann never really escaped. Uninvited stardom drove him to the bottle in the first decade of his new life. He eventually married, settled down in a Bavarian village, had a son, and worked conscientiously on Audi’s assembly line for 27 years.
Then, last Saturday, something snapped. After a family row, Schumann left the house. He was found by his wife a few hours later, hanging from a tree in the nearby woods. The History Man left no farewell letter behind.
Neighbours in the village of Kipfenberg describe him as a quiet, retiring man. All he had to show for his ephemeral fame was that picture on the living-room wall, alongside floral tapestries and a photograph of him with Ronald Reagan. The family were reasonably prosperous: they had inherited a house from the in-laws.
From the freedom photograph, however, he made not one pfennig. “As lawyers explained, because I am a historical figure, the picture can be published everywhere without my consent. But the photographer did not become rich either,” he consoled himself. “He was working for an agency.”
Nor did he get much joy from official quarters. A hero he might have been for the Western propaganda machine, but all officials wanted from him was information he did not possess. Schumann, according to the German press, was “squeezed like a lemon” by his Western interrogators.
Little wonder that the hero-villain felt confused by his dual status. As he drifted through life in West Berlin, frequently changing jobs in the initial years, alcohol provided the only solace.
Lonely and depressed, his only human contact with his family in the East was through letters. He had not changed his name or gone underground, and now the Stasi, the East German secret police, were after him. They wanted the Cold War icon back, for their own purposes. The family wrote letters asking Schumann to come home – everything would be fine.
“Only much later did I realise how dangerous this situation was,” he recalled in a 1994 interview. “I did not know that the letters my parents were writing me were dictated by the Stasi.”
He was even naive enough to contemplate going home for a visit while the Wall was still standing. At the last minute, a West Berlin policeman managed to talk him out of that plan.
After the Wall fell and Germany was reunited, Schumann was able to return to his native Saxony for the first time. But the homecoming was not the triumphant procession he had anticipated. Many people had been kind to him, he said, but quite a few had shunned him. “There are still some people who refuse to speak to me,” he said. The traitor had remained a traitor to many, even if the country he betrayed had since disappeared.
Still, he was back in the whirlwind of history, and for a time seemed to be enjoying it. In the euphoria of reunification, heroes of old were in great demand again, for one last hurrah. Schumann beamed into the cameras as requested, signed the posters depicting his run, and made efforts to speak cheerfully about his situation.
In 1989, as the Wall was being hacked to pieces, Schumann made guest appearances at the Checkpoint Charlie museum, signing pictures for tourists. He was no longer recognisable from the photo: now he was a podgy middle- aged man with tattoos on both arms.
After that, he devoted his full attention to car-building, making only rare visits to Berlin. The posters nevertheless remain the best-selling item at the Checkpoint Charlie museum, and visitors formed a long queue a month ago when Border Guard NCO Schumann came to sign for the last time.
The museum’s directors worry that business may take a down-turn now that the man it celebrates is no longer alive. They are probably wrong. For the picture was never about Conrad Schumann, the soldier with the invisible face, but about the act. It was the human spirit that soared above that barbed wire, and Schumann was merely an unlucky man who accidentally got into the picture.
It has been one year since Adolf Hitler’s book could once again be printed in Germany after 70 years off the shelves. Now it has swiftly become a bestseller.
For 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the brutal dictator’s manifesto remained unpublished in Germany.
Its copyright was owned by the state of Bavaria, which prevented new editions from being printed in Germany for fear of reinvigorating Nazi sentiments.
But when its copyright expired – 70 years after the death of the author, as is standard – an annotated version was printed for the first time again last year by the Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ) in Munich. And the publisher quickly began to sell out, rushing to print more copies to meet the high demand.
Over the past year, around 85,000 copies have been sold, much to the surprise of the institute. The IfZ had at first only printed 4,000 copies, and now it’s heading for its sixth print run.
In April, the book become number one on Spiegel’s bestseller list.
“The number of sales has overwhelmed us,” the director of the IfZ, Andreas Wirsching, told DPA on Tuesday. “No one could have really predicted it.”
Partly autobiographical, Mein Kampf outlines Hitler’s ideology that formed the basis for Nazism. He wrote it in 1924 while he was imprisoned in Bavaria for treason after his failed Beer Hall Putsch.
The book set out two ideas that he put into practice as Germany’s leader going into World War II: annexing neighbouring countries to gain Lebensraum, or “living space”, for Germans, and his hatred of Jews, which led to the Holocaust.
In its heyday, around 12.4 million copies were published in Germany and from 1936, the Nazi state gave a copy to all newlyweds as a wedding gift.
‘Mein Kampf readers are not right-wing radicals’
There was concern leading up to the re-publication that releasing an un-annotated version would allow Hitler’s assertions to go unchallenged. Jewish groups questioned why the anti-Semitic text – already accessible for academics – should again be widely distributed.
“It turned out that the fear the publication would promote Hitler’s ideology or even make it socially acceptable and give neo-Nazis a new propaganda platform was totally unfounded,” Wirsching said in a statement.
“To the contrary, the debate about Hitler’s worldview and his approach to propaganda offered a chance to look at the causes and consequences of totalitarian ideologies, at a time in which authoritarian political views and right-wing slogans are gaining ground.”
The IfZ edition is intended to be a critical look at the written work, including analysis and commentary from experts.
“It would have been irresponsible to allow this text to go freely,” said Wirsching.
And by the end of the year, Wirsching noted that those who bought the book turned out to be mainly readers interested in politics and history, including many teachers, not “old reactionaries or right-wing radicals”.
Recently the project even won the “Society needs Science” award with a €50,000 prize for how it “reveals Hitler’s false statements and distortions, corrects factual errors and explains the contemporary context.”
Wirsching said his institute’s edition has over the past year driven academic debate, some positive and some critical of the annotated work. He also said he would consider doing an English translation of their version.
But the IfZ is not the only group working with the text that now lies in the public domain. A right-wing publishing house in Leipzig called Der Schelm released a version without commentary, stating that readers should “have the courage to come to your own understanding”.
The Bavarian state is also working on a guide for history classes on how to use excerpts from the book in education.
“The aim is to handle a very difficult and historically weighty source in a sensitive way,” said a state education spokesman.
Seventy years ago on Friday, a munitions depot exploded in the Czechoslovakian town of Ústí nad Labem. For the thousands of Sudeten Germans who lived in the town, the event was a death sentence.
The explosion happened in the afternoon of July 31st, 1945. Around 27 people were killed, including seven Czechs.
World War II had ended just weeks before – and Czechoslovakia had begun to forcibly expel over two million Sudeten Germans who lived in the country.
So when the explosion happened, rumours quickly spread that the Germans were responsible.
What followed was a massacre.
All ethnic Germans had been forced to wear white armbands, making them easily recognizable – and on the day of the explosion, German men, women and children were mercilessly beaten and killed.
Some were shot dead. Others were thrown into the River Elbe and then shot at while they tried to swim to safety.
Part of the “fierce expulsion”
Those responsible for the massacre were Revolutionary Guards (a post-war Czech paramilitary group) alongside Soviet and Czech soldiers, as well as around 300 Czech civilians who had just arrived from Prague by train.
Mayor Josef Vondra tried to help the victims, as did many local Czechs. But the death toll continued to rise.
In the aftermath, the event was shrouded in controversy.
With an estimated 75,000 Czech citizens having been killed in forced labour camps under Nazi rule, Czech officials were unwilling to commemorate the Germans who lost their lives.
“This was a time of continental ruin,” explained James Mayfield from the Institute for Research of Expelled Germans, “and [with] no tribunals to prevent war crimes or local violence.
“Over 50 million had died in the war anyway,” Mayfield told The Local, “so the lives of 2,000 to 5,000 Germans at Ústí nad Labem were seen as largely insignificant.”
The massacre was part of something much wider, Mayfield said – and what happened in Ústí was “only one of many violent examples of what historians and German expellees call the wilde Vertreibungen (fierce expulsion) of Germans from countries such as Czechoslovakia.
According to Mayfield, local vigilantes ignored instructions from Allied powers to make the expulsions as “orderly, humane and non-violent as possible.”
Commemorating the victims
Ten years ago, former Czech foreign minister Cyril Svoboda unveiled a memorial plaque on the Aussiger Bridge over the River Elbe, where part of the massacre occurred.
“In memory of the victims of the violence of 31st July 1945,” it reads in Czech and German.
A decade on, the bridge is the scene of further remembrance.
Organized by the Association of German Citizens in the Czech Republic, a special ceremony took place this Friday to commemorate the victims of the massacre.
As in previous years, Sudeten German Association chairman Bernd Posselt travelled to Ústí for the service.
Yet the ceremony was particularly important this year, Posselt told the Local, as for the first time, Czech politicians would be in attendance.
The service began at 3:30pm and was attended by current Ústí mayor Věra Nechybová, as well as members of German minority groups in the town.
There was also a remembrance service in the street at 1pm, to commemorate those killed in the original explosion.
And at 6pm, a church in the town will hold a special mass for the victims.
Czech-German relations since the massacre
The massacre divided the two countries for decades – with ongoing controversy as to why exactly it occurred.
The Czech government have since claimed that they were unable to stop massacres such as the one in Ústí, Mayfield said.
However, he argued: “all historical evidence suggests that most locals, government officials, and particularly the communist party were widely aware of the massacres.”
“They either supported limited reprisals against the Germans, looked the other way, or even provided intelligence and names of German families.”
Since the German expulsion from Czechoslovakia, the Czech government has refused German calls for compensation for these refugees – several thousand of whom died in the expulsion.
But in 1997, the German-Czech Declaration was founded.
The agreement saw both sides state that they would “not allow past legal and political issues to be a burden” on the relationship between the two countries.
“The 1997 German-Czech Declaration paved the way for Germany and the Czech Republic to become present-day friends and partners, duty-bound to uphold human rights, freedom and democracy,” a spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry told The Local.
“Despite the many cases of massacres and forced dispossession, it would be inaccurate to describe the expulsion of the German minority of over 3,000,000 from Czechoslovakia as genocide or extermination,” said Mayfield.
“It was, instead, when combined with the expulsion of over 7,000,000 ethnic Germans from the rest of Eastern Europe, the largest and most organized ethnic cleansing in modern history.”
On this day, German troops re-enter Kharkov, the second largest city in the Ukraine, which had changed hands several times in the battle between the USSR and the invading German forces.
Kharkov was a high-priority target for the Germans when they invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, as the city was a railroad and industrial center, and had coal and iron mines nearby. Among the most important industries for Stalin’s war needs was the Kharkov Tanks Works, which he moved out of Kharkov in December 1941 into the Ural Mountains. In fact, Joseph Stalin was so desperate to protect Kharkov that he rendered a “no retreat” order to his troops, which produced massive casualties within the Red Army over time.
Hitler’s troops first entered Kharkov in October 1941. In May 1942, the Soviets launched an effective surprise attack on the Germans just south of Kharkov, enabling the Red Army to advance closer to the occupied city, and finally re-enter it on February 16, 1943. Hitler began planning an immediate recapture as early as February 21—Red Army Day—hoping that success there would reverse the Soviet momentum of the previous three months. On March 10, German troops launched their major offensive; the Soviets had already suffered the loss of 23,000 soldiers and 634 tanks in the recapture and defense of Kharkov and were forced to rely on 1,000 Czech troops for aid.
On March 14, the tide in Kharkov turned again, and the Germans took the city once more. “We have shown the Ivans we can withstand their terrible winter. It can hold no fear for us again,” wrote an SS officer. This proved to be a meaningless boast when the Red Army liberated the city that summer, and untrue, as the brutal Soviet winter actually did take a terrifying toll on German troops.
On this day in 1915, the British ships Kent and Glasgow corner the German light cruiser Dresden in Cumberland Bay, off the coast of Chile. After raising the white flag, the Dresden‘s crew abandoned and scuttled the ship, which sank with its German ensign flying.
Dresden, a 3,600-ton light cruiser, was one of the fastest ships in the German Imperial Navy, capable of traveling at speeds of up to 24.5 knots. The sister ship of the Emden, it was one of the first German ships to be built with modern steam-turbine engines. The British navy possessed faster ships, but luckily for Dresden, it had never had to face one. In continuous service since its introduction in 1909, Dresden traveled over 21,000 miles between August 1, 1914 and March 1915, more than any other German cruiser in action during the early months of World War I.
When war broke out in the summer of 1914, Dresden was patrolling the Caribbean Sea, safeguarding German investments and German citizens living abroad in the region. On July 20, during a bitter civil war in Mexico, Dresden gave safe passage to the fleeing Mexican president, Victoriano Huerta, transporting him and his family to Jamaica, where they received asylum from the British government. Shortly thereafter, news from Europe arrived of Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia and the imminent possibility of war, and the German Admiralty put its fleet on alert.
By the first week of August, the great nations of Europe were at war. The Dresden was ordered to head to South America to attack British shipping interests there; it sunk several merchant ships on its way to Cape Horn, at the southern tip of Chile, and eluded pursuit by the British naval squadron in the region, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. In October, the ship joined Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron at Easter Island in the South Pacific. On November 1, Spee’s squadron, including Dresden, scored a crushing victory over the British in the Battle of Coronel, sinking two cruisers with all hands aboard—including Cradock, who went down with his flagship, Good Hope.
Five weeks later, the speedy Dresden was the only German ship to escape destruction at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on November 8, when the British light cruisers Inflexible and Invincible, commanded by Sir Doveton Sturdee, sank four of Spee’s ships, including Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig and Nurnberg. As a crew member of Dresden wrote later of watching one of the other ships sink: Each one of us knew he would never see his comrades again—no one on board the cruiser can have had any illusions about his fate. Dresden escaped under cover of bad weather south of the Falkland Islands.
For the next several months, Dresden consistently avoided capture by the British navy, sinking a number of cargo ships and seeking refuge in the network of channels and bays in southern Chile. On March 8, the ship put into an island off the Chilean coast, in Cumberland Bay; its captain, Fritz Emil von Luedecke, had decided the ship needed serious repairs in the wake of such heavy and extended use. Six days later, after picking up one of the many pleas for fuel sent by Luedecke in the hopes of reaching any passing coal ships in the area, Kent and Glasgow found Dresden. When Kent opened fire, Dresden sent a few shots back, but soon raised the white flag of surrender. After a German representative negotiated a truce with the British sailors to stall for time, Luedecke ordered his crew to abandon the ship and scuttle it. Dresden sank slowly at first, then sharply listed to the side. Amid cheers from both the British on board their two ships and the German sailors that had escaped onto land, Dresden disappeared beneath the water, its German ensign flag flying, thus ending the five-year and 21,000-mile career of one of Germany’s most famous World War I commerce-raiding ships.