It is perhaps the most famous photograph from the Cold War. On August 15th, 1961, East German border guard Conrad Schumann was just 19 years old when he made the daring leap to freedom. It just so happened a photographer was present, and he captured the initial jump over the barbed wire, the sprint to a West German police car and Schumann driving away in its backseat.
The photo series is iconic and both sides, both West- and East Germany used it for propaganda purposes. Yet the, admittedly rather tragic story behind the young guard that risked his life in an attempt to reach freedom is much less known.
Hans Conrad Schumann was born on March 28th, 1942. He was born in Zschonau at Döbeln, in Saxony, East-Germany to a sheepherder. In 1960 at the age of 18, Conrad joined the Volkspolizei-Bereitschaften, a paramilitary police unit of East Germany. These units were tasked with riot control, anti-insurgency and were part of the armed forces, albeit not part of the actual East German Army. Conrad received his initial training in Dresden but was soon moved to Berlin.
And over in Berlin, on August 13th, 1961, the construction of the Berlin Wall started. It would separate East and West Berlin until November 1989. The wall became one of the most prominent symbols of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain and the German separation. After the Second World War, many East Germans fled to West-Germany, which was the easiest to do in Berlin because of its geographical location. It is estimated that between approximately 2.5 to 3.5 million people fled from East to West between 1949 and 1961. And not just Germans, but other people from Soviet satellite states that wanted to escape, used Berlin as a “gate to freedom,” if you will.
Because of this ‘brain drain’ of the Soviet satellite states, Nikita Khrushchev decided radical action ought to be taken to stop this. Together with Walter Ulbricht, First Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, he arranged a wall to be built. As such, on the night of August 12th to 13th the construction of the Berlin Wall began. At first, the passage was closed off with barbed wire, and within several weeks heavily guarded concrete blocks were placed to block any path. The East German government ordered its border guards to shoot at anyone that tried to cross to West Berlin.
And, well, one of those border guards was Conrad. He was on guard on August 15th 1961, just two days after the initial barbed wire fenceposts were erected. Conrad’s task was to guard the crossroads at the Bernauerstrasse and Ruppinerstrasse. On the West-German side, the young photographer Peter Liebling happened to stand there, with his camera. He noticed Conrad, seemingly tense, looking at the barbed wire shiftily whenever the other guards he was with had their backs turned to him. Liebling decided to wait and see if anything would happen.
West Germans, gathering around the barbed wire fence, started shouting at the East German border guards: “Komm’ rüber!”, which means so much as come over. Because the West-German police were aware there was a direct order by the government to shoot at anyone trying to cross, they parked a police van closeby for any potential escapees to hide in.
At around 4 PM, Schumann, standing against a wall next to the barbed wire was smoking a cigarette. He takes one last look around, flicks his cigarette away and bolts towards the barbed wire. As he is running he drops his PPSh-41 machine gun, leaving it behind and takes the leap over the barbed wire. Now on the West-German side, he darts to the police van, rushes inside, and closes the door. Conrad Schumann has defected to West Germany. The West German police subsequently drives him away to safety. The entire episode could not have lasted for over than half a minute, but the photographs taken by Liebling immortalised it. When Conrad arrives at the police station he asks for a sandwich. He does not yet know that his life is about to take a dramatic turn.
Because from that fateful day on, the 19-year-old and his escape was to be used for propaganda purposes both by East- and West Germany. The West German authorities consider him a hero and portray him as a man that took the ultimate risk and left his life behind to reach the “free world.” Meanwhile, in East Germany, Conrad is considered nothing more than an ordinary traitor. The Communist government initially issues press releases that state Conrad was abducted against his will by West German authorities, but when they realise there is photographic evidence of his escape, they change the narrative. A curious detail is that neither Conrad nor Liebling ever received a single penny for the photographs, although they were widely spread around the world.
But besides the propaganda, the direct aftermath wasn’t exactly great for Conrad either. Because of his position as a border guard, the Western intelligence services tried to get as much information as possible out of him. He was interrogated for quite an extended period, and later recalled that in the days following his defection he felt “squeezed like a lemon.” Information about Conrad’s family tricked over the wall into West Germany as well. Conrad learned that his family that stayed behind got quite the brunt for his defection. They are put under 24/7 surveillance by the Stasi, the Staatssicherheitsdienst, the notorious state security service of East Germany. Because of the publicity his escape received due to the photos, his family is ostracised in East Germany. And what is more: he receives multiple letters by family members begging him to return to East Germany. Conrad realises these letters were written under duress by the Stasi and never issues a reply. If he were to return, he would surely be put on trial and perhaps even be executed. The decades following his defection, he is under considerable stress. Yet he ends up finding a wife who he marries and has a son with. For the next couple of decades, he works at an Audi factory in Bavaria.
But he later admitted he didn’t feel too safe in West Germany either: he was afraid, continually looking over his shoulder, nervous about a potential hit job by East German secret agents. Fortunately, a hit job never occurred. But it isn’t until November 9th, 1989 that he feels truly free. That night the Berlin wall comes down, signalling the end of the division of Berlin, and eventually Germany as a whole.
Yet Conrad doesn’t visit his family for several years, and when he finally does, the meeting is quite awkward. Many are happy to see him, but others don’t want anything to do with him. They consider him a traitor or resent him for the trouble they received for his defection. Conrad remained a troubled man himself, even after the fall of the wall. On June 20th, 1998, he took his own life by hanging. He was 56 years old and left behind a wife and son. A very tragic end to a man that captured the world’s imagination by his daring escape.
It is estimated that in the near 30 years the wall stood tall, over 200 people that tried to cross the border were shot. Although it doesn’t stand anymore, the wall remains a symbol of the East- and West division that marked the Cold War and the suppression the Soviet satellite states suffered under Communist rule.