A work colleague pointed me in the direction of Tunnel 29, Helena Merriman‘s brilliant docu-novel of life in Cold War Berlin as the wall went up and it split into the Americanised west and Soviet-controlled east. The parallels with the war in Ukraine are never far from the mind as you read; the under-the-radar planning and meticulous thinking that kick-started things…the sudden, desperate need to escape the iron fist of Russian rule…the sheer numbers of Soviet troops surrounding the area; heavily armoured, well-drilled, seemingly impervious and always advancing, greedy for land and territory at any cost…with the unholy whiff of war crimes following their every leader-sanctioned move. If you didn’t know, the book might read like a Ukrainian refugee’s diary from this morning.
Merriman’s collected stories refers to a famous picture that I wasn’t aware of until now.
In the picture, taken in 1961, 19 year old Konrad Schumann, a recently-recruited member of the Bereitschaftspolizei (the riot police), is seen leaping the barbed wire fence that separates east Berlin from the west. Konrad is in mid-air, throwing off his gun, literally in the process of defecting from state-controlled aggression to the freedoms of the west; hamburger joints, rock and roll, education, opportunity.
It’s a powerful picture, with the blurry group of gossiping east Berliners looking pensively on and the half-hidden image of a West Berlin TV cameraman capturing it forever on film as young Konrad springs from the barbed wire he had been surreptitiously tramping down in the hours and minutes leading up to his leap to freedom.
The ‘wall’ was only three days old at this point. Put up without warning in the middle of the night, it snaked and scarred its way through Berlin, right down the middle of roads, across gardens, between houses, separating friends and family wherever they happened to be. Men and women who worked in the factories of West Berlin were suddenly cut-off from their terrified and confused families in the east. Men and women who worked in the factories of East Berlin were suddenly cut-off from their terrified and confused families in the west. Neighbours could look out at one another from across the barbed wire, but they were forbidden from talking to one another. They weren’t supposed to wave, acknowledge one another in any way at all. It fell to hastily-recruited border guards like Konrad to put the necessary muscle on them to ensure they complied. People in the east who were caught talking to their loved ones in the west were taken away by the Stasi, the secret police. Tensions were high.
West Berliners contrived to assist their eastern friends to escape. The less-guarded spots on the fence became escape routes, until more guards were added. Under cover of dark, many east Berliners swam the 30-yard wide stretch of River Spree to safety on the west bank. When the authorities found out, they simply dragged barbed wire under the water and blocked any opportunity of escape by river.
The guards on duty were very quickly the focus of abuse. As he paced his patch, Konrad was called a pig, a facist, a concentration camp enabler. The day before the picture was taken, a thousand-strong mob of protestors had been driven back by bayonet-wielding Soviet troops, but Konrad knew they’d be back.
He began to formulate a way of escaping without capture or punishment. One wrong move meant the end of his life. His decision process was sped up on day three with the sudden and unexpected arrival of concrete posts and steel plates. Quite rightly, the Russians had realised that their concertinaed barbed wire was insufficient in keeping easterns inside. Something more discouraging, more permanent was required.
For two hours, whenever no one was watching, Konrad would stamp and tramp the wire down to jumping-over height, building himself up to the state of mind where he’d be ready to leap. A few bystanders on the west picked up on what he was doing. When he was approached by one, Schumann faked a “Get back or I’ll shoot!” cry, before whispering to him that he was going to jump.
News of his planned escape travelled across west Berlin. A newsman appeared. A couple of photographers. A police van. The police in the west were friendly. They would help Konrad, but he needed to act fast. A crowd of westerners over the fence was not unusual, but they were encouraging him rather than decrying him. At some point, Konrad’s superiors would discover what was going on.
At 4pm, he flicked his half-smoked cigarette to the Soviet-controlled pavement, stepped back and faced the wall of barbed wire, took a run up and leapt. In mid air, he discarded his submachine gun, an unintentional but beautifully-timed metaphor. Photographer Peter Leibing, also 19, froze the moment forever. It remains an iconic photograph of late 20th century war.
Taken to safety by the police, Konrad was interrogated until found to be an ally. He was given a plane ticket to Bavaria, where he started a new life as a winery worker.
However, it didn’t end well for Konrad. He was deeply distressed at what might happen to his family as a result of his defection. He felt shame at abandoning his comrades whilst saving his own life. Having broken the oath he swore upon when joining the police, he lived with the constant fear of death around every corner. He waited for bangs on doors than never came. He lived in anxiety-driven paranoia that he was being followed by Stasi agents wherever he went. He would read stories of eastern defectors who had been captured and tortured and never seen again. Even after 1989 and the fall of the wall, Konrad couldn’t face his family. His former comrades wanted nothing to do with him.
In 1998, suffering severe depression, Konrad hung himself in his Bavarian orchard.
The Sex Pistols proved just as divisive as the wall Johnny Rotten sang off on the jackbooted sturm und drang of Holidays In The Sun. A howl of guitars and relentless razor-sharp attack, it never sounds anything less than insistent, urgent and now.
Sex Pistols – Holidays In the Sun
I’m lookin’ over the wall/and they’re lookin’ at me!
I’m gonna go over the Berlin wall
I’m gonna go under the Berlin wall
I don’t understand this thing at all