On August 15, 1961, East German guard Hans Konrad Schumann leapt into freedom while on duty guarding the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Born during World War II, Hans Konrad Schumann enlisted in the East German state police following his 18th birthday, after which he volunteered for service in Berlin, which had been carved up into four zones by the Allied governments after World War II.
To stop the flow of East Germans fleeing the Soviet section, East German leader Walter Ulbricht signed the order to close the border and to erect a wall on August 12. By early morning the next day, a barbed-wire-and-cinder-block barrier had been thrown up and the border was impassable to most vehicles.
A few days later, 19-year-old Konrad Schumann was sent to the corner of Ruppiner Strasse and Bernauer Strasse to guard the Berlin Wall on its third day of construction.
Associated Press photographer Peter Leibing, who had been tipped off that a defection might happen, gathered and watched as a West Berlin crowd enticed the 19-year-old border guard, yelling to him, “Come over!”
Schumann suddenly ran for the barricade. As he cleared the sharp wires, he dropped his rifle and was promptly whisked away from the scene by a West Berlin police car.
Sent out across the Associated Press wire, Leibing’s photo, entitled “Leap into Freedom,” ran on front pages across the world and has since become an iconic image of the Cold War era
It made Schumann, reportedly the first known East German soldier to flee, into a poster child for those yearning to be free, while lending urgency to East Germany’s push for a more permanent Berlin Wall.
Schumann settled in Bavaria where he got married and had a son. He took up a new job at the Audi car assembly factory in Ingolstadt, where he worked for nearly 30 years. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schumann said, “Only since November 9, 1989, have I felt truly free.”
Suffering from depression, he committed suicide in 1998, hanging himself in his orchard near the town in Upper Bavaria. His body was found by his wife a few hours later.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.