“Wer ist John Maynard?”
„John Maynard war unser Steuermann.
Aushielt er, bis er das Ufer gewann.
Er hat uns gerettet. Er trägt die Kron.
Er starb für uns. Unsre Liebe sein Lohn.”
John Maynard is a ballad by the German writer Theodor Fontane. Like for many of his other works the great storyteller got his inspiration for this ballad from a newspaper article. The ballad remembers and honours a helmsman who managed to steer his burning ship into safety, saving all his passengers and crew but himself. He has saved them. He wears the crown. He died for them. Their love his reward.
Had Theodor Fontane lived a hundred years later, his ballad might as well have begun like that
“Jürgen Schumann!””Who is Jürgen Schumann?”
Jürgen Schumann (29 April 1940 – 16. October 1977) was the captain of an aircraft called “Landshut” and he died trying to save his passengers. Not from a fire but from the brutality of four terrorists who had hijacked his plane on its flight from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt. Like the passengers on John Maynard’s ship the passengers of the Landshut were happily unaware of the death-trap they had boarded. Most of them had enjoyed a late summer-holiday, catching some last rays of sun before returning to German autumn with its rains and mists.
However, it was not just any German autumn. It was the German autumn 1977; of a year already pockmarked by murder and terrorism, committed by the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction, RAF), a terrorist group founded in 1970. Some of its chief-founders were in prison; but the second generation carried on with armed robbery and murder. In September 1977 it kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the president of the employers’ federation after having murdered his driver and security staff. The kidnapping was undertaken to extort the release of the imprisoned RAF-leaders, Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhoff and Gudrun Ensslin. Chancellor Helmuth Schmidt and his government however were determined not to fulfil the demands of the terrorists. They had done so once before and justly recognized the present situation as the fruits of their earlier decision.
That was the setting in which the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) decided to support their German fellow terrorists by increasing the pressure on the German Federal Government. To do so, they settled on hijacking a German aircraft and as their victims they picked the crew and passengers of the Lufthansa Flight 181, the Landshut, that took off from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt on 13 October 1977.
The development of the hijacking can be looked up in many reports and in the very good movie called “Mogadishu”). It ended on 18 October 1977 after a dramatic ultimatum, which had brought the terrorists within an inch of detonating explosives that would have killed them and all their hostages. The end when it came was brought about by a highly specialized German anti-terror-unit, the GSG 9, that managed to rescue all the hostages alive – all but one.
The one, for whom the rescue came too late, was the aircraft’s Captain Jürgen Schumann. He was murdered on 16 October in Aden, 40 years ago by the leader of the hijackers. And it is of him that I want to tell you.
Jürgen Schumann was born 29 April 1940 in Colditz, a small town in Saxonia, well known during WWII for its big old castle that the Nazis used as a high-security POW-prison. His family moved to Hessia in 1949, where Jürgen Schumann grew up and enroled in the Bundeswehr-Airforce to serve a term of 8 years after which he joined the Lufthansa. There he worked for some years as a co-pilot until only a few weeks before the fatal journey of the Landshut, Jürgen Schumann rose to the position and responsibility of a pilot.
Any mention of what happened to the Landshut would be incomplete unless it honours the whole crew of the aircraft. The co-pilot as well as the stewardesses met the stress of the kidnapping with exceptional courage. Together they bore the constant psychological cruelty of threatened or faked executions with which the terrorist leader, Zohair Youssif Akache, or “Captain Martyr Mahmud” as he demanded to be called, terrorized his victims; they helped as best as they could the passengers, many of whom were frightened children or sickly elderly persons, who were continuously shoved about the plane, separated from their parents or partners and denied proper medical relief. And on top of all this came the climatic conditions in the aircraft, that stood for hours in the relentless heat of some desert-airports, without supplies of fuel, air-condition or drinking- water; or without being relieved of its waste. During this ordeal their captain proved to be a true leader who from the first calmly and efficiently lived up to his responsibilities and never cowed before the terrorists’ unpredictable moods.
The Landshut on its stop at the airport of Fiumicino, Rome
On the third day of the kidnapping, 15 October, once again the aircraft was in desperate need of fuel. Despite being denied landing, Captain Schumann and his co-pilot Jürgen Vietor brought about a skilful emergency-landing without damage or injury to anyone – next to the blocked up runway of the Aden Airport. In order to make sure of the state of the aircraft for himself Jürgen Schumann obtained the permission by the terrorists to leave and inspect the plane. While this check-up went on, the terrorists were confronted with the certainty that their “sponsors” had washed their hands of this hijacking and withdrawn the help they had expected to find in Aden. This disappointment brought Akache’s volcanic moods beyond control. When he realized that the captain was absent much longer than any inspection might have taken, he screamed after him, demanding his immediate return to the aircraft. Inside the aircraft he declared his determination to execute the captain whom he denounced as a deserter and traitor. When after a short while Jürgen Schumann re-entered the aircraft, Akache forced the captain to kneel down in the middle-aisle and twice fired the question “guilty or not guilty” at him. Twice Jürgen Schumann declared not guilty. But without intending to grant the captain any chance for explanations and in full view of the horrified crew and passengers Akache murdered Jürgen Schumann by a direct shot into the head.
“Guilty or not guilty?”
What should the captain of the kidnapped Landshut have been guilty of? Not only Akache suspected him of having tried to leave behind his crew and passengers and to desert his post of responsibility.
How do you decide which of two versions of an event is the trustworthy one? How as an outsider do you decide whom to believe? Belonging to the many who learned most of what happened in October 1977 only much later, this cruel suspicion always seemed to me to be an especially malevolent blow against a man whose whole personality and lifelong commitment to justice and right gave the distinct lie to such a slander. Even if one may assume that any nerves may crack under circumstances like those on board of the Landshut, not only all I had read about Jürgen Schumann pointed towards disbelieving the version of an attemted desertion. What made the slander even more incredible: the accusation first was brought up and voiced by Akache – Schumann’s murderer, who for obvious reasons would have tried to undermine his hostages’ confidence in “their” captain. Why should his be a voice to be credited?
Still, it took almost 30 years and the determined researcher, Maurice Philip Remy, to find out what happened in that night at the Aden Airport. After several digs deep into the more muddy layers of history, Remy found the witness who had met Jürgen Schumann that night and was the last person to speak with him.
Jürgen Schumann, during the Landshut’s stop at the Airport of Dubai
What kept the captain away from his aircraft was this: During his round of inspection he encountered Jemenite police-officers who guarded and isolated the aircraft which nobody wanted on their hands. Jürgen Schumann used this opportunity and begged leave to talk to an authority. He was brought to Sheikh Ahmed Mansur who was in charge of the police force that guarded the Landshut. In their short interview Jürgen Schumann asked for help for his passengers and crew. His wish was for Jemen to allow the kidnappers and their hostages to leave the aircraft in order to continue negotiations from Aden. It was denied. Aden would not want anything to do with this chaotic and obviously doomed terror-action and was determined to send the plane on at the earliest possible moment. With this plea for help denied and Akache screaming for the supposedly defected captain, Jürgen Schumann was in no doubt what would be his fate on his return. Despite the mad rage of Akache, he returned to his own responsibilities and to those he knew himself to be responsible for.
Should he have returned immediately into the plane without making this bid for freedom – on behalf of others? It certainly would have been safer. But after three days in the hands of the terrorists this was plausibly the only opportunity to put in a word for humanity with those who had shoved the aircraft around and tried to wash their hands of the affair.
Another brave man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had described the attempt to stop the unfolding catastrophe of his country as grasping into the spokes of a running wheel. You do not know whether you can stop it; but you can be sure that the wheel will ruin your hand. And yet, if you see clearly the situation, conscience leaves you no other way but to grasp into the wheel and do your best. Jürgen Schumann tried and took his slim chance to stop the nightmare. He decided to speak up for those entrusted to his care, coute que coute. And it did cost. He and his young family paid a horrible price for acting honourably on a slim chance and against immense odds.
In the end, German diplomats and the élite-police-unit saved all innocent lives – but one from the hands of the terrorists. But still, what Theodor Fontane had written about his helmsman John Maynard holds true about this captain as well: his courage and sense of responsibility deserves our lasting grateful memory.
“He died for us, our love his reward