It was an iconic Cold War image... a soldier, face partially obscured, taking a leap that was as short in distance as it was remarkable in global impact.
The date was 15th August 1961, just two days after building work on the Berlin Wall had started, and the young uniformed East German border guard who had taken the decision to literally jump to freedom over coils of barbed wire was nineteen year-old Conrad Schumann: “My nerves were at breaking point. I was very afraid. I took off, jumped, and into the car... in three, four seconds it was all over.”
To the West, the teenager was an instant hero; to those on the East German side of the barricade, a traitor.
The catalyst for his decision had reportedly been the sight of a fleeing child being dragged back from the West, but whether or not his leap was the act of a hero or a desperate man, Schumann was unprepared for the glare of the media spotlight. Eventually he did settle down to married life and a steady job on a car production line, but for a while after his defection, he had suffered from depression, and his closest friend had been the bottle.
It probably didn’t help that his perceived heroism was rewarded by interrogation from officials desperate for information the youngster didn’t have. And by not changing his name or hiding his whereabouts, he became a target for the East German secret police, who dictated letters “written” by Schumann’s family telling him to come home... that everything would be fine. He very nearly made what would have been the fatal error of returning, but was persuaded otherwise by a West Berlin police officer.
Schumann was described as a quiet, retiring man by those who knew him. The only clues to his fame were that iconic picture hanging on his living room wall, and a photograph alongside US President Ronald Reagan. He seems to have lived comfortably, without being wealthy – he made no money at all from the picture that captured his moment and place in history.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Schumann was able to see his family for the first time in nearly three decades. Although he was well received by many, there were still plenty who refused to speak to him. East Germany no longer existed, but once a traitor...
Schumann was again swept along by the media circus, regularly posing for pictures, signing copies of the 1961 photo, or meeting tourists during guest appearances at the Checkpoint Charlie museum; but all that came to an abrupt end in June 1998. After an apparent argument at his family home, Schumann walked out, and was found by his wife several hours later... hanging from a tree.
There was no suicide note. No explanation. But perhaps this was one more act of desperation from a man who never quite came to terms with the fact that his whole life was ultimately and tragically defined by a single press of a camera shutter.
Conrad Schumann 1942-1998