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September 19, 2016

Leap Into Freedom: East German Soldier Escaping the Border, And the Story Behind One of the Most Famous Photographs of the Cold War Era

It was the Cold War era. Berlin was divided in two: East and West Berlin. Tensions were high and the then Berlin Wall was a mere barbed wire fence. Two young men were about to make history as one would make a break for it and run to the other side while the other captured it on film.

The iconic photograph of Hans Conrad Schumann escaping East Berlin taken by Peter Leibing.

Here’s the original uncropped version.

On August 15, 1961, 19-year-old photographer Peter Liebing was tipped off by West German police that something would happen upon Bernauer Straße. He had been tipped off as a 19-year-old Conrad Schumann had stood at what would eventually be the Berlin Wall – coils of barbed wire – and pressed down upon it. In a signal to a West German policeman, he gave a sign – the sign to defect.

The situation was dire: as coils of barbed wire were being unrolled, the people of Germany were in uproar, shouting and swearing at police and guards from both side. But upon the Western border, a police van had been stationed opposite the wire, its back door open.

When Liebing arrived, he noticed a young GDR border guard leaning against a wall, smoking cigarette after cigarette, trying to keep calm. Two of his comrades were patrolling the other side of the road. To Liebing, it was unclear which of them would defect, and when. As hours went by, nothing happened, but Liebing continued to be at the ready with his Exacta camera ready to capture whatever would occur.

But at 4pm, Liebing caught the picture which would change Schumann’s life.
“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.”
There were many press photographers in attendance at that intersection, but the photo that appeared in all the newspapers the following day was taken by Peter Leibing, who had pre-focused on the barbed wire and pressed the shutter release in just the right "decisive moment" to capture Schumann in mid-leap above the wire, ridding himself of the gun with his right hand and using the left arm for balance.
“I had him in my sight for more than an hour. I had a feeling he was going to jump. It was kind of an instinct... I had learned how to [get the timing right photographing horses] at the Jump Derby in Hamburg. You have to photograph the horse when it leaves the ground and catch it as it clears the barrier. And then he came. I pressed the shutter and it was all over.”
His photo taken with a 200mm lens mounted on —ironically— an East German Exacta camera became an enduring image of the Cold War. There is only one negative; the camera had no motor-drive and it was the only image he had time to shoot.

Below is a rare footage showing the entire “Leap Into Freedom” sequence; likely taken by the videographer that is visible on the left in the uncropped version of Peter Leibing's image.

Schumann was the first of many GDR border guards to defect from East Germany.

East Germany initially wanted to portray his defection as a kidnapping, but as publicity mounted behind a uniformed member of the GDR fleeing his own regime, it became more and more unviable to maintain the story.

In his police report, Schumann provided the West with a valuable insight into the instability behind the East German lines.

In the report, Schumann disclosed that in the days prior to his escape, he had worked endlessly in the attempt to maintain control behind East German lines and got very little sleep as GDR troops were reallocated to East Berlin. In the GDR, he had been told certain things about those in West Germany: that those lingering along the Western Berlin border were criminals, or that the West German police did everything to keep the West Berliners in (such as shooting at them). However, as he stood guard at the border, through his observations Schumann came to realise that what he had been told were falsehoods; there were no conflicts between West Berliners and the police and that the ‘Free Zone’ was indeed free.

Schumann had made some preparations. The Russian MG 42 he had chosen was empty as to help him get over the wire. As he said, had it not been, it probably would have gone off when he dropped it. At 2pm, he assigned tasks to the soldiers under his command, and spread them out so that it wouldn’t look suspicious, but had placed himself closest to the wall. As he said, “Nobody noticed anything.”

After his escape, Schumann remained in a refugee center in Marienfeld, West Berlin until the end of September 1961.

The two other guards, Erich Fierus and Peter Kroger, later stated that had they have caught Schumann in the act, if he had so happened to have gotten caught in the wire, they would have shot him. But with knowledge of what the Stasi were capable of, this would have been one of the kinder options.

Conrad Schumann had become a symbol of freedom during the Cold War.

But life in the GDR was defined by paranoia. With the State Security – also known as the ‘Stasi’ – keeping an eye on everyone and everything, imprisoning those who were merely suspected of antisocial activities and sentencing all those to prison or hard labour, residents of the GDR had everything to fear. It was well known that there were those in the West whom had been kidnapped by the Stasi, and so it was not irrational to think that even though one was in the West, that they could still be a target.

On one side of the Wall, Schumann was a hero. On the other, he was a traitor.

In the West, Schumann was alone. Born in Zschochau, Saxony, Nazi Germany in 1942 and trained as a sheepherder, Schumann had left family and friends behind in the East. The West German Government helped him to build a new life in the West. With his ticket to Bavaria, he started work at a Hospital and trained to become a nurse. However, his first decade in the West sees him fall prone to the bottle to numb the pain, the start of what would be a lifelong battle with alcohol addiction.

Schumann he met his future wife and with her, had a son, Erwin. He bought his first car, a VW Beetle, in 1963 – a far cry away from the eight year waiting list for a Trabant in the GDR. He took up a new job at a winery, and eventually at the Audi car assembly factory in Ingolstadt. Schumann proudly cheered for FC Bayern München, and attended church on Sundays. He got himself tattoos on both arms along the way.

But Schumann had left behind his mother and father, a younger sister. The Stasi, with their eye upon him, record that he wrote exactly every two weeks. When his father had finally received a permit to see him thirteen years after the jump, Schumann discovered that he had been told by the Stasi that he had read contraband materials, and that they had paid him to jump, to which Schumann had accepted. Over the years, Schumann was tempted to return to Saxony, receiving letters from his family saying that everything would be fine if he were to come home. At one point, he had to be persuaded by a West German policeman against what could have been a disastrous outcome, because little did he know but the letters had been written by family, but dictated by the Stasi.

And so despite all pressure from the Stasi, did not return to the GDR. The fear and paranoia plagued his life, and alongside the pressure of his unintentional fame, Schumann led to a lifelong battle with depression and alcoholism. He had remarked, “Only since 9 November 1989 [the date of the fall] have I felt truly free,” and had considered Bavaria where he felt truly at home.

Despite the fame, Schumann never blamed Liebing for taking the photograph.

Schumann developed a small friendship with Liebing throughout his life as a result of the photograph and met often. Schumann divulged to Liebing in a private talk his reason for defecting: he did not want to be put into the situation where he would have to shoot someone. With one’s upbringing in the GDR being fundamentally driven towards military purpose, it was highly likely that Schumann might eventually have had to.

Twenty years after his jump, Schumann stands in front the iconic photo by Peter Leibing, 1981. (Image: Edwin Reichert/AP)

Schumann later publicly spoke more about his reasons for defection, “As a border policeman I could see how a little girl who was visiting her grandmother in East Berlin was held back by the border guards and not allowed over to West Berlin. Although the parents were waiting just a few meters from the already rolled barbed wire, the girl was simply sent back to East Berlin.”

After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Schumann was reunited with the family he had left behind in East Germany, but it was clear that time had not justified his choice to some.

There were those in his family who still regarded him as a traitor, and refused to talk to him. He had frictions with former colleagues, and was hesitant to visit his parents and siblings back in Saxony.

Conrad Schumann died in 1998 from suicide, and though he left no note, it was widely accepted that he never escaped living a life in fear. He was 56 years old. Schumann was one of the Berlin Wall’s many victims.

Peter Liebing’s photograph of Conrad Schumann, entitled ‘Leap Into Freedom’ was compiled as part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World in 2011.

(via Dominic & Coco)



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