Prussia during the 19th century was an anomaly in the European theatre. By the early 20th century Prussia had managed to unify Germany in the German Empire, with its Kaiser, Wilhelm II at its head. Ingrained in Prussia’s culture was undisguised militarism, including the collective urge to obey army officers. Prussia’s militarism and its population’s docility to the army stand central in today’s story about a poor shoemaker, a petty criminal and scam artist that happened to be born in Tilsit, a city in then-Prussia. Thanks to a well-executed ruse, this man, Wilhelm Voigt, managed to impersonate a Prussian military captain, rally a troop of soldiers behind him and pulled off an extraordinary heist near Berlin which launched him to international fame.
The Prussian Scam Artist
Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was born in 1849, Tilsit. Already at the age of 14, Voigt was convicted of petty crime and two weeks of imprisonment. He was expelled from school following the conviction and took up an apprenticeship with his father, a cobbler. According to Christopher Clark, he was convicted six times for theft, robbery, and forgery for which he received a prison-term totalling 25 years. He was released in February 1906, and settled illegally near the Schlesischer Bahnhof railway station, since Berlin authorities would not grant him a residence permit. He spent several months there as a night lodger, sharing his bed with factory workers that worked night shifts.
A bit over half a year after his release, in October 1906, in Western Berlin, Voigt managed to purchase second-hand Prussian military uniform parts from multiple thrift stores. He eventually managed to assemble the uniform of a captain of the First Foot Guards Regiment. On the morning of October 16th Voigt went to the Jungfernheide Park in Berlin and changed clothes into the captain’s uniform. He then made his way to the local military barracks, when he encountered four soldiers and a non-commissioned officer that were on their way back from guard duty at the Plötzensee prison. The officer told his soldiers to stand to attention while Voigt explained to them that he was under direct orders from the King and had to take command of the unit. He dismissed the officer and took the four soldiers with him to the Putlitzstrasse station. On his way there, he managed to get another 6 on-duty soldiers from the nearby rifle range to join his group in order to “carry out the supposed mission of the king.” He led his troops into a train that was bound to Köpenick, a historic town to the south-east of Berlin. On their way there Voigt treated ‘his’ men to beer bought at the station.
In Köpenick the band of soldiers made their way to the council chambers. There Voigt ordered his men to guard the main entrance, entering the building with the rest of his troops. They made their way to the suite administrative offices, the mayor’s workplace. In there were mayor Dr Georg Langerhans and the city’s most senior secretary, Rosenkranz. There, Voigt ordered the arrest of both men. Mayor Langerhans himself had served in the Prussian military as a reserve lieutenant. As such, when he saw Voigts epaulettes displaying his rank, the mayor immediately stood up and did not even consider resisting the arrest. Both the mayor and his secretary were told they were to be escorted to Berlin. Voigt also reached the office of the council police inspector. The inspector was sleeping, after all, this was an incredibly quiet district, and it was a pleasant early-autumn afternoon. Voigt reprimanded the inspector, before making his way to the office of the municipal cashier, von Wildberg.
Moving through the building Voigt arrived at von Wildberg’s office. He ordered him to open the municipality’s safe and give its entire contents to Voigt. Wildberg willingly did so, not even considering resisting a captain. Voigt cashed in 4000 marks and 70 Pfenning, and in turn, handed Wildberg an “official receipt”. Having managed to grab all the money the municipality had, Voigt now ordered his men to take their prisoners to Berlin and report to a military command post there. He himself left as well but disappeared on the way to Köpenick station. Much later Voigt told about what he did afterwards: he got rid of his military clothing, took another train to Berlin and settled in a café across the military outpost, the Neue Wache, he ordered his men to take the prisoners to. There he drank a beer as he watched the entire spectacle of confusion unfold in front of him. He then left the café and was on the run for six weeks before he got captured. He was arrested in December 1906 and received a prison sentence of four years.
Within days Voigt’s exploits launched a real media spectacle. German newspapers wrote about the ‘unheard-of trickster’s exploit’ and ‘a robber’s tale as adventurous and romantic as any novel’. The crime was perceived to be genuinely funny and Voigt’s motives were often elevated to him wanting to prove Prussian ‘militarism’ was dangerous. Berlin newspapers described Voigt as ‘cheeky’ ‘brazen’ ‘clever’ and ‘ingenious’ and for a while, everyone talked about it in taverns, on the street and on trains. Postcards of the ‘captain of Köpenick’ were produced and sold with considerable success.
International media too wrote about it. The Times reported that an event such as this could only happen in the militaristic German culture. Voigt rapidly became one of the famous fables of modern Prussia. In 1931 Carl Zuckmayr, a German writer and playwright, created the stage play Hauptmann von Köpenick which was later turned into a film which I have used clips of during this video.
Voigt himself was one of the beneficiaries of his crime as well. He served less than half of his sentence when the German Kaiser and Prussian King, Wilhelm II ordered his release granting him a royal pardon. Within a week he was speaking to crowds in galleries and bars, reminiscing about his crime. Berlin authorities forbade him to make any such appearances and that is when Voigt capitalised on his foreign fame. He made an incredibly successful tour to the Austro-Hungarian empire, visiting Vienna and Budapest. He spoke at nightclubs, restaurants and fairs, talking about his adventure and selling postcards with his face on it. In 1910 he even left Europe to the United States and Canada. Apparently even a wax statue of him was created in London’s Madame Tussaud’s. In 1909 he published his memoirs: How I became the Captain of Köpenick, which earned him enough money to buy a house in Luxemburg, where he settled permanently. He stayed there during the first world war, living relatively comfortably from his book sales and tours.
Wilhelm Voigt passed away in January 1922 at the age of 72. He started as a petty thief but due to his rather amusing crime, he ended up being an international celebrity for the last years of his life. I certainly think his story is worth telling and really enjoyed reading about him. And not just me, in 1996 the Köpenick municipality even created a statue for him, which stands in front of the council house.