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.