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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Conrad Schumann: The expression of civic courage

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Conrad Schumann a franchi la frontière le long de la rue de Bernau.
An individual act overtaken by the symbol.

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 15 August 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 take part in the deployment in the East German capital.

The young man's unease is nevertheless palpable. His mission order is in complete contradiction with his perception of the reality on the ground. This is a time for drama, human drama above all. Circling around like a caged wild animal, Schumann is torn by multiple opposing feelings. Should he go over the barbed wire that demarcated the border with the West? A decision that carries a lot of weight. If he does, what will happen to his family and friends? If he stays, on the other hand, will he feel guilty about the drama, will he regret his lack of courage? Time is running out for him. After an hour, he sets off in a frantic race. He jumps over the barbed wire and takes refuge in a West German police van.

Two pictures

On the other side of the barbed wire, photographer Peter Leibing captured the scene. From the front, the body's pose is ideal, the movement striking, one leg bent as it crosses the barbed wire. An iconic image was born. This perfect shot quickly became the symbolic illustration of the Berlin Wall. The media and politicians of the Western world captioned the photograph with a striking slogan: "the leap into freedom".

However, a photograph, however remarkable its aesthetics, remains a bias. The question of the angle, of the perspectives of the space, orient our interpretation and understanding of the events. In this respect, the photograph taken by Leibing is heroic. There is another photograph, in profile and at the moment of the race. This time Schumann's face is uncovered. It is no longer a silhouette but a human being. One reads determination, perhaps a controlled panic, with his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Above all, Schumann is now alone in the photograph, alone in the face of adversity, in the face of barbed wire.

An ordinary man

Schumann's gesture is a frantic race, a fleeing and an individual act, decided in the immediacy, the haste. A young man torn by his feelings and thoughts, pressed 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 kept an almost sickly discretion, never publicly mentioning the fact that he was the man of the 'leap into freedom'. Then he built his life. He became a mechanic in the car industry and started a family. A perfectly ordinary life.

The trauma of exile

But he knew what it was like to be uprooted. He would never regret his action, but he lived with the pain of separation. A pain made all the more acute by the fact that his move to the West had not been thought through or anticipated. Living far from his family, without ever hoping to see them again. He who had become a hero and a symbol in spite of 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 above all to be at 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 renew acquaintances with his old friends, he was met only with closed, reproving faces.

He was therefore the traitor who had abandoned his family. No doubt the family suffered the wrath of the East German government in response. Here we find the whiff of 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 secretly 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 his feelings and contradictions. Let us beware of passing moral judgement on Schumann. He was an ordinary person, with no stories or pretensions other than that of living an ordinary life. But events will have dragged him along in their chain.

His image has served the propaganda interests of the Western world and probably harmed his own interests. The irony is such that his likeness is now featured on postcards and T-shirts in tourist shops.

If Schumann was a symbol, he will be the symbol of personal trajectories broken by division. More than a symbol of the past, he is an example for the present. His gesture is the concrete answer to the question that everyone has asked oneself: "What would I have done or what would I do if historical events took place in sequence?" This is the question of individual responsibility. The choice is difficult and the outcome uncertain.

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