Conrad Schumann: The Expression of Civic Courage
Updated: Jun 21
Many people know Conrad Schumann, without knowing who he was. He is not only a symbol of the Cold War, but above all an expression of civic courage.
Crossing the Border Line
On August 15, 1961, a young East German policeman witnessed the closure of West Berlin. For two days, the GDR had been building what would become known as the Berlin Wall. Conrad Schumann was 19 years old. As an aspiring non-commissioned officer in the riot police, he had volunteered to participate in the deployment in the East German capital.
Despite his duty, the young man's unease was palpable. His mission order contradicted his perception of the reality on the ground. This was a time of human drama. Pacing like a caged animal, Schumann was torn by multiple opposing feelings. Should he cross the barbed wire that marked the border with the West? A decision of this magnitude was heavy. If he left, what would happen to his family and friends? If he stayed, would he feel guilt, regret his lack of courage? Time was running out. After an hour, he bolted in a frantic run. He leapt over the barbed wire and sought refuge in a West German police van.
On the other side of the barbed wire, photographer Peter Leibing captured the scene. From the front, the body's pose was ideal, the movement striking – one leg bent as it crossed the barbed wire. An iconic image was born. This perfect shot quickly became the symbolic illustration of the Berlin Wall. The Western media and politicians captioned the photograph with a poignant slogan: The leap into freedom.
However, a photograph, however remarkable its aesthetics, remains biased. The question of angle, of spatial perspective, guides our interpretation and understanding of the events. In this regard, the photograph taken by Leibing is heroic. There is another photograph, taken in profile during the run. This time Schumann's face is visible. He is no longer just a silhouette but a human being. One sees determination, perhaps a controlled panic, with his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Above all, Schumann is now alone in the photograph, alone against the barbed wire.
An Ordinary Man
Schumann's action was a frantic run, a flight, an individual act, decided in haste. A young man torn by his feelings and thoughts, driven by events. In an instant, he suspended time by passing into posterity. During his life in West Germany, Schumann did not seek notoriety. In his Bavarian exile, he maintained a discrete profile, never publicly acknowledging that he was the man of the 'leap into freedom'. He built a life for himself. He became a mechanic in the car industry and started a family. An ordinary life.
The Trauma of Exile
But he knew what it was like to be uprooted. He never regretted his action, but he lived with the pain of separation. This pain was made all the more acute by the fact that his move to the West had not been planned or anticipated. Living far from his family, without ever hoping to see them again. He had become a hero and a symbol despite himself. A visit to the GDR would have meant immediate imprisonment or even the death penalty for desertion and high treason. Schumann tried to maintain some semblance of contact with his relatives, to whom he regularly sent food packages. Perhaps he did this primarily to make peace with himself and to remember where he came from. He admits that it was not until the fall of the Wall in November 1989 that he felt 'truly free'. The disillusionment was all the more bitter. When he tried to reconnect with old friends, he was met only with closed, reproachful faces.
They considered him the traitor who had abandoned his family. No doubt the family suffered the wrath of the East German government in response. Here we find a detestable German practice, the Sippenhaft, which made the whole family bear the responsibility of one of its members, in the name of a so-called shared responsibility.
Far from the heroic tales, a real Greek tragedy was taking shape. Schumann never recovered. He ended his life at the age of 56.
A Model of Civic Courage
The fate of Conrad Schumann reminds us that behind every heroic romance there is a human figure with feelings and contradictions. Let's beware of passing moral judgement on Schumann. He was an ordinary person, with no stories or pretensions other than to live an ordinary life. But events dragged him along.
His image served the propaganda interests of the Western world and probably harmed his own interests. The irony is such that his likeness now features on postcards and T-shirts in tourist shops.
If Schumann was a symbol, he was a symbol of personal trajectories shattered by division. More than a symbol of the past, he is an example for the present. His action is the concrete answer to the question that everyone has asked themselves: "What would I have done or what would I do if historical events unfolded?" This is the question of individual responsibility. The choice is difficult and the outcome uncertain.