A leap into freedom

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Hans Conrad Schumann (March 28, 1942 – June 20, 1998) was an East German soldier who famously defected to West Germany during the construction of the Berlin Wall on 15 August 1961.

Conrad Schumann was immortalized in this photograph as he leapt across the barricade that would become the Berlin Wall. The photo was called “The Leap into Freedom”. It became an iconic image of the Cold War.

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Born in Zschochau, Saxony during the middle of World War II, he enlisted in the East German state police following his 18th birthday. Since he had always shown himself to be a loyal and hardworking young citizen of the German Democratic Republic, local military officials offered him an elite position in the paramilitary Bereitschaftspolizei or BePo (“riot police”), which was specifically conceived to suppress rebellion.

On 15 August 1961, the 19-year-old Schumann was sent to the corner of Ruppiner Strasse and Bernauer Strasse to guard the Berlin Wall on its third day of construction. At that time, the wall was only a low barbed wire fence. At the same spot, on the West Berlin, was standing the 19-year-old photographer Peter Leibing. For more than an hour, Leibing stood watching the nervous young non-commissioned officer as he paced back and forth, his PPSh-41 slung over his shoulder, smoking one cigarette after another. “Come on over, come on over!” (Komm’ rüber!) the West Berlin crowd on Bernauer Strasse chanted. “He’s going to jump!” one passerby remarked.

And at four p.m. on August 15, 1961, Leibing got lucky. Schumann tossed aside his cigarette, then turned and ran for the coil of barbed wire that marked the boundary between East and West. He jumped, flinging away his gun as he flew, and Leibing clicked the shutter.

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall he said, “Only since 9 November 1989 [the date of the fall] have I felt truly free.” Even so, he continued to feel more at home in Bavaria than in his birthplace, citing old frictions with his former colleagues, and was even hesitant to visit his parents and siblings in Saxony. On 20 June 1998, suffering from depression, he committed suicide, hanging himself in his orchard near the town of Kipfenberg in Upper Bavaria.

In May 2011, the photograph of Schumann’s “leap into freedom” was inducted into the UNESCO Memory of the World programme as part of a collection of documents on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A sculpture called Mauerspringer (“Walljumper”) by Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders could be seen close to the site of the defection,but has been moved since then to the side of a building on Brunnenstraße, several meters south of Bernauer Straße.

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