Conrad Schumann and the ‘Leap of Freedom’

If we had to choose an icon of the triumph of the West over the Soviet Union, it is impossible to ignore the famous photograph of Peter Leibing entitled: ‘Leap of Freedom’.

But does anyone know the name of this soldier? What happened once he ran over to the western-controlled part of Berlin? Here mr. Marshall brings you the story of Conrad Schumann, a young policeman aged 19 years old who worked for the Bereitschaftspolizei (which translates as the state police) and whose life was radically changed in just 4 seconds. Everything took place on August 15, 1961: it was four o’clock in the afternoon and Conrad Schumann was in the corner of Ruppiner Straße. Bernauer had orders to guard the border between East Berlin (the area of the city that fell under the administration of the Soviet Union) and West Berlin (territory administered by the US, British and French sectors). It had only been two days since the Soviet sector decided to construct the famous Berlin Wall when Schumann took the decision that changed his life completely. He looked both ways and made sure that nobody was watching him, stamping down on the barbed wire to try lower it enough for him to jump over (which caught the attention of photographers located in the west). Then he made the leap got immediately into a police car that West Berlin had parked close to the wire — the door was already open for him.

Many people were standing around, and that was good, because they distracted my colleagues. I was able to swap my loaded sub-machine- gun for an empty one before I jumped. The jump was not so difficult then. After that the gun fell noisily on the ground; with a full magazine it probably would have gone off.

The ‘free’ Schumann

If there was to have been an American film version of the event, you can imagine Conrad asking for a helicopter, $2 million in hundred dollar bills and the witness protection program. But no, Herr Schumann opted for classic German austerity and ordered a sandwich. Indeed, he came from East Berlin, so he probably asked for something as simple as a cheese and ham sandwich.

Once the Soviet secret service learned of the news, they tried to manipulate the story and insist that Conrad Schumann had been kidnapped by the West. However, extensive media coverage of his flight meant that it was virtually impossible to keep up the charade.


In contrast to what anyone might have expected, Schumann did not become a propaganda icon for West Berlin. Actually, nothing is further from the truth and officials instead focused on questioning him again and again to get information about their enemies in the east. Obviously a police officer of his rank had little to offer.But the end of questioning did not signal the end of Schumann’s troubles. The first month and a half after he became part of the ‘free world’ was spent in the Marienfelde refugee center. It was not until the end of September 1961 when he moved to a small town in Bavaria called Kipfenberg, where he worked on the assembly line for Audi for almost 30 years.Despite being a sort of icon and the star of one of the most reproduced photos in the history of the twentieth century up to this point, none of this generated any income for Schumann. As his lawyer explained, Schumann was a historical figure and people did not need his consent to publish the photograph wherever they wanted.From August 1961 to November 1989, Schumann remained in West Germany without seeing his family, which caused multiple bouts of depression and he began to have problems with alcohol. During those 28 years, the only contact he had with his family was through letters. Somewhat predictably, the Stasi sought to try and trick Schumann into returning back to the East by faking letters from his family. Indeed, Schumann came close to falling for the trick once only to have a West Berlin policeman convinced him otherwise.

The free Germany

In the words of Schumann, he was not “really free until November 9, 1989”, the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This allowed him to return to his Saxony, where he was met with two very different reactions. On the one hand, many people recognized him and were kind to him. On the other, some people, and especially his former colleagues, rejected him for being a “traitor”. This even made him doubt whether or not to visit his parents and siblings.

During the process of the reunification of Germany, he took part in some events where he was praised and was even asked for his autograph. You could also see his story in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. He was never able to completely overcome his depression, and one day his wife found him hanging from a tree in a forest near Kipfenberg, where they lived with their son Erwin.

Gallery 1: Image left: Wikimedia Commons Berlin, Bernauer Straße, Grenze Quaschinsky, Hans-Günter CC-BY-SA 3.0 Some rights reserved

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