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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect