The leap of hope that ended in despair

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence