August 15 1961. It was two days after East Germany sealed off its border with the Berlin Wall. The 19-year old Hans Conrad Schumann was guarding the construction of Berlin Wall, then in its third day of construction, at the corner of Ruppinerstraße and Bernauerstraße*.
At this stage, the Berlin Wall was only a low barbed wire fence. For hours, the nervous young non-commissioned officer paced back and forth, his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, smoking one cigarette after another. Around 4 p.m., as the people on the western side shouted Komm über! (“come over”), Schumann jumped the barbed wire and was driven away at high speeds by an awaiting West Berlin police car.
There were many press photographers, but the above photo, which hit the West Berlin tabloids in hours, making the frontpage of Bild, was taken by Peter Leibing, also a nineteen-year old. Only that morning, he had arrived to Berlin from Hamburg, and had been tipped off that an East German soldier had signaled to spectators on the West Berlin side of the barrier that he was going to make a break. He waited for an hour and a half to get this photo:
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 do it 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 ironically with an East German Exacta camera as Schumann threw away his rifle — became an enduring image of the Cold War. The camera had no motor-drive and it was the only image he had time to shoot, although the next frame was that of Schumann when he got out of the police car. Sent out across the AP wire, Leibing’s photo ran on front pages across the world. It won the Overseas Press Club Best Photograph award for 1961.
Schumann was the first known East German soldier to flee and quickly became a poster child for those yearning to be free, while lending urgency to East Germany’s push for a more permanent Berlin Wall.
He became a mechanic with Audi but his address was secret because he feared revenge from the Stasi. In fact, Schumann’s relatives in Saxony were closely monitored, and the hatred of the East German officials followed him. When East Germany issued a general amnesty for refugees in 1987, his name was expressly excluded. After the fall of the Berlin Wall he returned to his birthplace in Saxony. Shunned by his parents, his siblings, his friends and his hometown for what he had caused, Schumann eventually hanged himself in 1998.
* In the early days of the divided Berlin, West Berlin firemen waited at Bernauerstraße with safety nets for people would jump out from the apartment buildings in the Soviet sector into the street which was in the French sector. Less than month after Schumann defected, however, the East German Volkpolizei moved in with workmen to seal up doors and windows and ordered 2,000 residents to leave their homes; later the buildings themselves were demolished to create a fire-zone. Despite increased security, Bernauerstraße became the scene of the most successful escape attempt, when in October 1964, fifty-seven people escaped through a 145-metre tunnel, dug by students from a disused bakery on the street.
The original uncropped version: