Without ever intending to, he became a symbol of defiance for a nation. Conrad Schumann was a 19-year-old policeman, an East German rookie cop assigned to a beat he had never expected: the brand-new Berlin Wall. “It was the 15th of August 1961,” he recalls. “The wall had gone up on the 13th—then it was really just a low, wire barrier in most places. People were getting through it all over the city. I was standing guard on a street corner.”
Schumann was one of hundreds of young policemen rushed to the border to prevent escapes until a permanent wall could be erected. Like many of his fellow recruits, he was hardly enthusiastic about his job. “The wall seemed a terrible thing,” he says. “I had no desire to shoot my fellow citizens, and I knew that they were about to put up a much stronger wall.”
As he stood at his post, a few feet from the barbed-wire barricade, Schumann, a native of Saxony in East Germany, had time to reflect. “I was thinking about how beautiful West Berlin was, and then I thought about the arms buildup that was going on in the East. I had seen the Russians and their tanks. The situation seemed to be growing more dangerous by the hour. I stood there for two hours, looking toward West Berlin and looking back at East Berlin. Then I jumped.” That short leap was frozen in history, making Schumann suddenly famous—and a hero to his countrymen on both sides of the wall.
He has long since left his position at the crossroads of world politics for the simple life of a workingman, servicing machinery at the Audi factory in the city of Ingolstadt. “I am a mechanic, not a politician,” he responds when faced with a question about the future of Germany. “I can’t say what my life would have been like if I had stayed in East Germany. I’ll never know.”
The gradual softening of East Germany’s attitude has helped reunite the Schumann family; his sister, brother and 75-year-old mother have come to visit him, and for Christmas this year the whole clan will gather at Schumann’s home in Oberemmendorf, a small village in Bavaria, 80 miles north of Munich. Like many of his countrymen, Schumann, now 47, believes that it will be years before the two Germanys establish normal relations. But one change he would like to see quickly is a new regime in the East. “Under the current government, I am still a military deserter. And I would like to go back someday and see my home.” When the wall opened on Nov. 9, Americans saw throngs of Germans rejoicing, weeping, partying in the streets. What they did not see were the people who had brought down the wall-not just the East German politicians who authorized its opening as a desperate measure, but the individuals in both Germanys whose struggle on a thousand different fronts had cracked that seemingly impenetrable barrier. Conrad Schumann was one of the first people to strike a blow against the wall. But over 28 years, many others—dissidents and defectors, East and West Germans alike—also attacked that symbol of repression. Some risked their freedom to speak out, others to smuggle people out of the East. They are famous and unknown, well-connected and obscure, united only by the dedication they shared and by the victory they now savor. Here are some of their stories.
“I was young then,” Horst Schumm says. “Young people do that sort of thing.” At 38, he has spent seven years in East German prisons and almost all his adult life in the battle against the wall. The “sort of thing” he did was smuggle 16 people out of East Germany, some in cars with secret hiding places, some with forged papers. He was part of a highly disciplined secret underground, young Westerners who risked everything to bring freedom to people in the East who were often complete strangers. He tells his own story without embellishment.
“I came to Berlin in 1972 as a student,” he says. “When I visited the East, I always met people who asked, ‘Is there a chance I could come to the West? Could you help me?’ Well, I helped them. But when they got out, some of them talked about how they did it. The Stasi [the feared East German secret police] have agents everywhere in the West. They heard about me, and the next time I was in East Germany they picked me up.”
That was in 1974; for the next two years, Schumm was held incommunicado in an East Berlin prison. “They never used physical torture,” he says. “Only psychological torture.” For the entire period he was denied contact with family and friends. Although West Germany maintains a diplomatic mission in East Berlin, none of its officials were allowed to visit him. Eventually he was sent to a political prison near Dresden to serve a 15-year sentence.
The jail was filled with artists, writers, and activists; from them Schumm took an intensive course in the government of East Germany. He learned about the suppression of free speech, about the omnipresence of the Stasi and even about the ways the government tried to break people’s will. “They would try to make political prisoners believe that their families had forgotten about them,” he says. “They would tear up the letters prisoners wrote and not deliver letters from their families. One man was called into an office and handed a telegram, which said that his father had died. The telegram was dated six months earlier.”
In 1981, Schumm was ransomed by the West German government in one of its periodic prisoner deals with the East. A week later he went to work in West Berlin’s Wall Museum—just a few steps from the wall, near Checkpoint Charlie. “I came here because I saw that I would have a chance to talk about the things that happen in the DDR [East Germany],” he says. The museum is a powerful indictment of totalitarianism, filled with photographic exhibits of life in the DDR as well as demonstrations of some of the ingenious methods people here used to escape the wall.
Sitting in the museum café, Schumm has about him the slightly bedazzled look of a man whose life dream is coming true. But the museum and its work will not end anytime soon—not as long as East Germany has a government not chosen in free elections, not as long as the Stasi remain in business. “Sure, people can go to the West now,” says Schumm. “That’s fine. But nothing has changed. Everything has to change in East Germany.” Last December, like Jenschke and her sons crossed the wall into West Berlin. Ironically, the Jenschkes were not eager to leave. But they were the wife and children of Udo Jenschke, and their exit marked the end of a sad drama that had been playing itself out for 20 years.
“The Stasi first came into my life when I was 16,” says Udo, 37. “It was 1968, when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. I got a Czech flag and carried it around until the Stasi came and told me to get rid of it. They told me that I was in trouble and would be in trouble the rest of my life. They were right.”
The harassment was almost constant. The Stasi showed up at his home and his jobs, always reminding him of their presence, never letting him forget his youthful act of defiance. He grew to hate the state and the Communist Party—a feeling that was especially hard for him to deal with since he was also his father’s son.
“My father, Richard, was a Communist,” Udo says. “During World War II he fought with the Resistance—he was completely anti-Fascist. After the war, the Russians made him a commissar of the criminal police. He had a consummate will to establish socialism in East Germany. As I grew up, I saw that the socialism he believed in, the ideal state, was not happening, and it wasn’t going to work. But he never saw that. He fought for it, tried again and again and always wanted to work for the perfect socialism. He was fighting for it even when he died of old age in 1982 at 72.”
Although they were never estranged, Udo and his father came to opposite views of the world. “I found work as a tile layer,” Jenschke says. “I often worked in the homes of the party elite, and realized how differently they lived from the average people. In 1987 my boss told me he had signed a paper denouncing me to the Stasi; I was out of a job, and he said I’d never work again. After that, I was only able to find odd jobs.”
Ilke and Udo have two sons—Björn, now 17, and Mike, 11. In 1980, the Jenschkes had joined an Evangelical church in the Berlin suburb of Kylitz, thinking that religion should play some role in their sons’ lives. Soon, though they were not especially devout, they were drawn into the resistance movement that was growing up around East Germany’s churches. “The important thing about the churches,” a friend of the Jenschkes points out, “is that they are the one place in East Germany where you know there are no Stasi. The Stasi spy on them, but they don’t belong to the churches.”
Inspired by the dissident spirit of his church, Udo finally spoke out in a flyer that he wrote and posted on shop windows and street signs in his neighborhood two years ago. It was a direct challenge to authority: Stasi Man and Stasi Woman—I accuse and warn you. Mercenaries of the system, the people on their way out; you’re going to have to get a real job soon.
In a totalitarian state, it was a breathtaking gesture—and vengeance followed. “Later that month the Stasi came to get us,” like says. “Six men in two cars. They arrested us in front of our children. It was very frightening for them.” Adds Udo: “The neighbors looked the other way. In all the years that the Stasi hassled me, the neighbors always looked away.” like was released after two days; she had been charged with a sort of civil blasphemy for shouting “Murderers!” at the Stasi who arrested her. Udo was not so lucky. He spent eight months in six different prisons before he was released to the West German government—expelled from his own country.
“They came to me and told me my husband had gone to West Germany,” like says. “They told me that papers would be drawn up that would allow me and the boys to emigrate as well. The government promised me that my husband and I would be together by Christmas. But the Stasi wanted one last bit of revenge. They saw to it that the papers were delayed until Dec. 28 of last year.” That day, like and the boys went to the wall. “They led us through a small room,” she says, “and then a door opened in the wall. There my husband was standing.”
The family went through the wall. A few days later, their belongings were shipped after them, and they started the difficult business of beginning anew. They were banned by law from ever going home again. The Stasi must have thought they were forever rid of a dangerous nuisance. They were wrong.
“The night the wall opened, it was amazing,” like says triumphantly. “People were going in and out of East Berlin all night—no document checks, no controls. We slipped into the East, and we were there all night, visiting friends, visiting relatives, seeing what was going on. The Stasi couldn’t do anything about it.” Udo and like Jenschke had conquered the Berlin Wall.