Most stories about Prussia are tales of glory, honour, and bravery on the battlefield. This one is about a desperate man who turned living in a strongly regimented, militaristic society to his own advantage - and very nearly got away with it.
An Outcast From Society
Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt1, the son of a cobbler, was born in the city of Tilsit2, East Prussia, on 13 February, 1849. He spent the mandatory three years in primary school, then moved on to a secondary school to continue his education. However, the family was poor, and Voigt's father was an alcoholic who spent little time supervising his children. Voigt was accused of stealing from his classmates, and on 12 June, 1863, at the tender age of 14, he was sentenced to two weeks of prison for 'Landstreicherei' ('vagrancy') after the police arrested him when he went to visit a relative on foot.
Because of this criminal record, Voigt was forced to leave school and apparently couldn't find a craftsman willing to take him on as an apprentice. He became a shoemaker, learning the trade from his father. However, he preferred to continue his criminal career, with six more convictions for theft and forgery of documents between 1864 and 1891, serving a total of 27 ½ years in prison. The last of this series of convictions alone resulted in a sentence of 15 years of hard labour for attempting to rob the Treasury Department of the court in Wongrowitz, Posen3 with the aid of a crowbar in 1890.
A Reformed Character
Voigt was finally released from the Zuchthaus Rawitsch4 on 12 February, 1906. With the prison chaplain's help, he found an excellent new job working for the Hofschuhmacher (Imperial Shoemaker) Hilbrecht in the port town of Wismar, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, starting that very month. He vowed to give up his life of crime, registered with the city, paid his taxes for the next eight months in advance, and wrote to his home town of Tilsit to apply for a new passport.
That might have been the end of the story, had it not been for the Hofmarschallamt (Lord Steward's Office) of the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Despite the fact that he had a secure position and lived in a reputable boarding house, he was banished from Mecklenburg on account of being a person who required police supervision - which was technically possible under the law, but not neccessary. Though his employer testified for him in court, the ban was maintained, and Voigt was forced to leave Wismar on 21 May, 1906, after only three months. He returned to Prussia where he attempted unsuccessfully to find work in various cities, and finally made his way to Rixdorf5, a town on the outskirts of Berlin, to live with his married sister.
Fallen Through The Cracks
By this time, Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, ex-convict, was genuinely trying to get an honest job and live his life quietly. However, the conservative Prussian society made it extremely difficult for him. Its most powerful and most valued members were the military and the famed Prussian bureaucracy, who were accorded high honours even outside their jurisdictions. Society was split into four Stände or classes, with nobility and officers6 forming a sort of ruling caste that was closed to anyone who was not satisfaktionsfähig, that is, permitted to carry weapons and defend his honour in a duel. Citizens were expected to be extremely patriotic, respect uniforms, and follow all the rules - second chances were not readily given. Due to its exaggerated importance, one's social standing was largely determined by one's time in the military, and the first question asked at any job interview (or of a potential suitor for one's daughter) was usually 'Wo haben Sie gedient?' - 'Where did you serve?'.
Admitting that the only thing he served was an extended prison sentence wouldn't exactly have made Voigt popular with prospective employers. To make matters worse, he had no passport, and besides his prison sentence, had been punished with Ehrverlust - loss of honour, and the civil rights connected with it - for a period of ten years after his release, during which he would be living under police supervision. Nonetheless, he overcame these difficulties and finally managed to find a job as a worker in a factory that produced felt shoes and slippers.
Again, that could have been the end of it - but Voigt suffered another setback. On 24 August, 1906, the police chief of Rixdorf decided that he was a 'person who endangers public security and morality' and ordered him out of Rixdorf - and out of 42 other communities in and around Berlin. Officially, he left the city on 1 September, 1906, bound for Hamburg. However, he remained in Berlin illegally, continuing his work at the factory and living as an unregistered Schlafgänger7 with a Frau Karpehr near the train station Schlesischer Bahnhof. This meant that like many of the poorest workers in overcrowded Berlin, he was a second-rate lodger, renting a bed by the hour at times when the owners didn't need it, without the right to use the kitchen or any of the other rooms. This uncomfortable arrangement, and the constant threat of discovery by the police, made the situation hard to bear.
A Plan Is Made
Today, a biography like this might, unfortunately, lead to someone running amok at his place of work. Voigt, however, calmly quit his factory job on 6 October, 1906, and used the following week to formulate his plan. Most likely, he wanted to leave the country and try his luck elsewhere, but he needed money. The nearby city of Köpenick8 had a large budget surplus, and the newspapers reported that there were plans to store a substantial sum of money - two million Marks9 - in securities, stocks, and bonds in the town hall - a tempting target!
To get his hands on this money, Voigt carefully planned a coup, drawing on experiences from his previous life - all his crimes had been committed in trying to rob or swindle money from government offices. He visited various pawnshops and second-hand clothes dealers in Berlin and Potsdam, putting together a complete uniform for a Hauptmann des 1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß10, a Captain of the 1st Infantry Guard Regiment, a Prussian regiment based in Potsdam. Though technically his plan required a helmet, he made do with an officer's hat, because it was easier to hide. On the evening of 15 October, Voigt took a train from his lodgings to Beusselstraße train station to fetch the uniform from the baggage storage where he'd left it, wrapped in newspaper. To cover his tracks, he walked to Jungfernheide train station, changed into the uniform there, took another train to the suburb Stralau-Rummelsburg, and caught an early morning train back into Köpenick.
[He is] about 45 to 50 years old and has an approximate size of 1.75 metres. He is of slim build, has a thick, grey, drooping moustache and a shaved chin. The face is wide, and one cheekbone protrudes, giving the face a lopsided appearance. The nose is smashed in, and the legs are bent slightly outwards (so-called bow legs). The stance is slanted to the front, with one shoulder slightly sticking out in the back, so that this figure, also, appears crooked. He was dressed in an infantry uniform, hat, a paletot11 with the rank insignia of a Captain of the 1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß, long trousers, high boots with spurs, white gloves, and a sash. He carried an officer's rapier with a star badge.
- from a police bulletin published in the Rixdorfer Tageblatt on 18 October, 190612
On the morning of the 16th, Voigt first explored the area around the Köpenick town hall, memorising its layout and the surrounding streets, and then took the train back to Putlitzstraße station, where he spent some time on the Seestraße, the main thoroughfare connecting the Charlottenburg palace to much of the rest of the city. Around noon, when the guards were changed, he stopped a squad of Fusilier Guards consisting of four soldiers and a sergeant, who were returning to barracks from guard duty at the Plötzensee lake, where the military did swimming exercises.
He who wears the uniform doesn't win because he's better or smarter or more careful than the others, but because he's in uniform.One can hardly imagine the thoughts that must have been running through the head of the shoemaker Voigt, member of the fourth and lowest class in a society that honoured the military he'd never served in above all else, when the sergeant stopped the squad, had them stand to attention, and reported to the supposed officer. Nonetheless, Voigt kept his cool - he put the squad under his command, citing highest orders from the Cabinet, and dismissed the sergeant so he could report to his superiors. Shortly afterward, he commandeered six further men from the 4th Infantry Guard Regiment, who were on their way back from the shooting range.
- The Berliner Tagesblatt
Explaining that he hadn't had time to acquire an automobile, Voigt marched the ten men back to the train station. Since they were trained virtually from birth to obey officers' orders without question, none of the ten complained, except to say they'd not eaten. In the guise of a well-meaning officer - or perhaps because he felt sorry for them - Voigt treated the soldiers to beer, sausages, and cigars, gave them each a Mark, and then boarded the train to Köpenick with his squad. The first part of his plan had worked out - now for the hard part, convincing his alleged betters he was one of them.
Events Unfold At Köpenick Town Hall
Voigt reached Köpenick train station at 2.46pm, and immediately marched to the town hall, ignoring the commotion caused by the arrival of a Captain. He ordered his squad to fix bayonets and posted a double guard at the main entrance and one at each of the two others, then had the gates shut. When the gendarmerie came to see what the fuss was about, he ordered them to clear the main square and control the civilians, who were coming in droves to watch the spectacle, requesting that one policeman come with him 'for better orientation'. With the man's help, Voigt and the remaining six soldiers marched straight up to the mayor's office.
There, Voigt explained to the startled mayor, one Dr Georg Langhans, that he was terribly sorry about the whole matter, but that he had orders to take over the administration and treasury of Köpenick 'in the name of his Majesty'. Surely, as a retired officer, Dr Langhans would understand... Both the mayor and the chief secretary, a man named Rosenkranz, were placed under arrest on charges of crooked bookkeeping, and after Langhans proposed phoning Berlin to clear up the misunderstanding, Voigt secretly had the post office closed down for an hour, to prevent anyone from phoning or telegraphing to request confirmation of his orders. At about 3.30pm the shoemaker had brought the town hall under his control, without even needing the written orders he'd forged.
The most absurd part of this absurd fraud (at least, to English eyes) is one which, oddly enough, has received comparatively little comment. I mean the point at which the Mayor asked for a warrant, and the Captain pointed to the bayonets of his soldiery and said. 'These are my authority.' One would have thought any one would have known that no soldier would talk like that. The dupes were blamed for not knowing that the man wore the wrong cap or the wrong sash, or had his sword buckled on the wrong way; but these are technicalities which they might surely be excused for not knowing. I certainly should not know if a soldier's sash were on inside out or his cap on behind before. But I should know uncommonly well that genuine professional soldiers do not talk like Adelphi villains and utter theatrical epigrams in praise of abstract violence.Control of the town hall was all very well and good, but Voigt was there for the money - and he had to act quickly, before someone caught on to him. His next stop was the treasury, where he informed the treasurer, von Wiltberg, that he was also under arrest and ordered him to count the cash on hand before he would be taken away. Of the 4000 Marks and 70 Pfennigs13 recorded in the books, 13.67 were found to be missing, though a careful search turned up 12 Marks more in rolls of coins. Leaving behind the 443.25 Marks in bonds, Voigt had the remaining 3557.45 in cash bagged up in two post bags, then signed a receipt for them as 'von Malzan, H. i. 1. G.R.', combining the name of his last prison's director and the abbreviation for his alleged military rank and unit.
- GK Chesterton, commenting on the incident in his 1908 essay collection 'All Things Considered'
By now, Voigt's squad had commandeered two carriages, and Voigt used them to have the mayor and the treasurer sent off to the Neue Wache guard house in Berlin Unter den Linden - separately and under guard, though he did graciously allow the mayor's wife to accompany him, and let the secretary go free. Voigt ordered the remaining soldiers to keep the town hall closed for another half-hour, then return to Berlin by train, where they were to report to the Neue Wache as well. He himself left with the cash around 5.30pm, taking the tram and stopping at an upmarket shop to buy a new suit, coat, hat, and shoes for the princely sum of 188.50 Marks, calling himself 'von Malzan' here as well. Then, he disappeared.
Voigt left massive confusion in his wake. Shortly after his departure, civil servants managed to send a telegram to Berlin. By the time the two carriages containing the mayor and the treasurer arrived at the Neue Wache, the authorities already knew what had happened - and that it hadn't happened on anyone's orders - and both men were immediately released. They and the soldiers were questioned thoroughly. Had nobody noticed that the supposed officer was already close to sixty, far too old for military service? Did no-one notice his extremely worn shoes, the way the uniform was far too big for his frail body, or the fact that he wasn't wearing a helmet, which was required for officers conducting official acts? A restaurateur from Köpenick train station would later report that the man who had come in near dawn to have his breakfast was even wearing his uniform incorrectly, with a twisted sash and missing braid. The witness also said that the officer had appeared strange, because he took off his hat on entering, and politely said 'Good Morning'! And yet, he had managed to dupe an entire city, from the mayor down to the lowliest constable. He had to be found, and fast!
It was presumed that the culprit was, at least, ex-military, and a huge search was started. The rapier was found discarded at the tiny train station Hermannstraße-Rixdorf, but there was otherwise not a trace. The police offered the more than generous reward of 2,000 Marks for his capture, and the city of Köpenick added a further thousand. Notices with his description were plastered all over town, and everyone suddenly claimed to have seen him. Voigt later admitted that he would discuss the case with the crowd reading the newest notices, dressed in civilian clothes and going unrecognised.
Ten days after his coup, on 26 October, Voigt was tracked to his lodgings and arrested while he was having his breakfast. He had made the mistake of visiting his sister and having his picture taken with her, a copy of which he sent to his former employer in Wismar. A former cell-mate of Voigt's had already cast suspicion on him, which was duly reported in the newspaper, so Hilbrecht turned the photo over to the police - all the evidence they needed, as the numerous witnesses recognised the false officer. Hilbrecht and two police officers later received a substantial part of the reward. At the time of his arrest, Voigt had already managed to spend 769.45 Marks of the stolen money.
On 1 December, 1906, Wilhelm Voigt was found guilty of impersonating an officer, theft, and wrongful deprivation of personal liberty. It was decided that the forgery did not play a large part in the crime, so he was only sentenced to four years of prison. The court further decided that it could not take his honour as a citizen, because he had already lost it. And that could have been the end of it...
The People's Hero
From day one, the media loved the story, and people everywhere followed it closely. Even while he was in prison awaiting trial, Voigt was showered with gifts of tobacco, chocolate, flowers, and money, and even propositions of marriage from society ladies! Scores of journalists from all over the world and people from all walks of life crowded the court at his trial. The people loved him - for fooling the state, for being so daring, for making them laugh.
Incredibly quickly, the story spread to the stage, with three different theatre companies incorporating the story into the evening's entertainment even before he was sentenced. A caricaturist working for the satirical Munich newspaper Simplicissimus drew the ten soldiers being questioned in court. 'Didn't you notice anything strange about the counterfeit Captain?' - 'Yes, your honour! He was too fair! He never shouted at us once!'
While a certain indignation could be felt, many newspapers wrote tongue-in-cheek articles, almost lauding Voigt and his unprecedented exploit and presenting it more as a prank than a crime. Special editions were printed almost daily and sold hot off the press, keeping the public supplied with news. A brief selection:
A rascal's farce, cheeky and ingenious in its conception and bold in its execution - and, thus, only recognised as such much later - upset the quiet town of Cöpenick yesterday. The particulars of the incident are so unspeakable, often so grotesque, that one would have to doubt the story's veracity if one had not seen it with one's own eyes.
- Special edition of the Cöpenicker Tageblatt, 17 October, 1906
The heroic feat of the counterfeit captain is the topic if the day. Go into a restaurant, ride the train or the tram, everywhere you will hear the exploit being discussed. And the talk isn't indignant about the robbery of the Köpenick treasury - no the tone is derisive, sarcastic; there is a certain Schadenfreude about this stroke of genius. [...] People everywhere are downright filled with admiration for the ingenious captain; it is even lamented that the his reward was too small for this posse. Others say that the man can be surpassed. One just needs to acquire the requisite energy and a general's uniform to attain the command of an entire regiment...However, other papers soon saw beyond the entertaining story, and warned their readers what this meant for Prussia.
- The Vorwärts, 19 October, 1906
As incredibly funny, as indescribably ridiculous as this story is, it has a serious, an embarrassing side. The Köpenick farce shows itself as the most glorious victory the militaristic ideal in its most extreme culmination as ever carried off. Yesterday's intermezzo shows us quite clearly: encase yourself in a uniform in Prussian Germany, and you are almighty. The uniform is an irresistible talisman. A military squad you meet on the street is yours to do with as you please. You can occupy the town hall like a conquered fort. You can arrest whomever you like, and steal whatever money there is. Then, you can get away untouched...
Break in like an ordinary safe-cracker? How old-fashioned! But to make use of the towering might, the towering esteem of militarism, that's smart! That's sophisticated! That's modern! Indeed, the Captain of Köpenick has correctly interpreted the Zeitgeist. He is intelligent enough to understand and respect modern power structures. The man is a Realpolitiker of the finest kind... The victory of blind military obedience over common sense, over the state, over the personality of the individual - that is what yesterday's comedy showed us, in its horribly grotesque manner.
- The Berliner Volkszeitung, 17 October, 1906
That an entire community with all its public functions, an entire squad of soldiers could be duped by a single man in such a disarmingly funny and entirely efficient manner, was achieved by a single military vestment in our land of unlimited awe of uniforms, when an old, bow-legged individual draped it around himself.The foreign media, too, were quick to catch this angle of the story. As the Illustrated London News pointed out:
- The Berliner Morgenpost
For years the Kaiser has been instilling into his people reverence for the omnipotence of militarism, of which the holiest symbol is the German uniform. Offences against this fetish have incurred condign punishment. Officers who have not considered themselves saluted in due form have drawn their swords with impunity on offending privates.
The Kaiser in question - Wilhelm II - happily proclaimed 'That shows you what discipline is! This could happen in no other nation of the world.' However, he is said to have laughed while he said it, and called the impostor an 'ingenious fellow'. Finally, the emperor granted him a pardon. On 16 August, 1908, Voigt was released, to the delight of the public. He was 59, and had, by this point, spent a total of more than 29 years of his life in prison.
The media were eager to turn Friedrich Voigt into a public figure, and he was more than willing to participate. On the day of his release, he made a gramophone recording, for which he received 200 Marks. Four days after his release, a wax figure of him in his uniform was already unveiled in the wax museum Castans Passagenpanoptikum Unter den Linden, and he was there to hold a speech. His appearance drew such crowds that 17 people were arrested for disturbing the peace. Public performances by Voigt were forbidden that very day, but he ignored the order. He sold autographed postcards with his picture, played himself on stage, and even appeared together with members of the squad he'd commanded.
Voigt now resided in a hotel and had his own car and chauffeur. He soon began touring the rest of Germany, selling himself and his story in hotels, at fairs, and in restaurants. He travelled to Vienna, Budapest, London and New York, having to sneak in through Canada to visit the latter because the authorities would not grant him a visa. After all, he still had a criminal record, and had to live under police supervision in Germany, often arrested on tenuous charges because the state didn't like the implied criticism in his speeches - or his very existence. In 1909, he published his memoirs, titled Wie ich Hauptmann von Köpenick wurde. Mein Lebensbild. - 'How I became the Captain of Köpenick. My Biography.' - in which he claimed that he'd only intended to force someone in the town hall to give him a passport. The veracity of this claim is disputed, since Köpenick did not have the authority to issue passports!
A Quiet End To A Hectic Life
Wilhelm Voigt emigrated to Luxembourg, Luxembourg, in 1909, where he bought a house and lived off his savings, sometimes working as a shoemaker or a waiter. In 1910, he became a citizen of Luxembourg, finally getting his passport. Unfortunately, the war and the resulting inflation bankrupted him, and he died in poverty on 3 January, 1922, five weeks before his 73rd birthday. He was buried in the Notre Dame14 cemetery, the funeral paid for by a charity.
The lease for Voigt's grave expired in 1942, but was extended for 30 years by an anonymous donor in 1944. From 1961 onward, the German circus Sarrasani took over the care of his grave, first giving him a marble slab (which had the wrong year of birth - 1850 - engraved on it) and then replacing it with a memorial stone - again with the wrong birth date! In 1974, he was to be finally exhumed due to local laws, but after an international outcry, the city of Luxembourg granted him the use of the grave indefinitely.
For the curious, there are still living traces of Wilhelm Friedrich Voigt to be found. His name is listed in the Brockhaus dictionary, along with the word Köpenickiade, which has become a synonym for an impostor temporarily gaining the cooperation and obedience of others by pretending to be an official. The town hall of Köpenick has a statue of Voigt on the steps and a special room dedicated to his exploits, part of the Köpenick local history museum, and a wax figure of Voigt is still on display at Madame Tussaud's.
His story has also entered German lore through the pen of Carl Zuckmayer15, who declared the incident a 'German fairytale'. He used the story as the basis for his 1931 play Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, which has since been made into several films, one of them in English. However, this dramatisation is highly romanticised, and later (but less well known) books and plays try to shed light on the true story of a man who fooled society by seeing through its rules.
A bandit's deed, as adventurous and romantic as we know them only from novels, as had seemed possible only in the Russian revolutionary chaos or in some kind of Italian brigands' idyll, chilled the collective blood of the neighbouring town of Köpenick yesterday. A swindler - an ingenious one, we must say - wearing an officer's uniform managed to bring the gendarmerie, the mayor, the treasurer and a battalion of soldiers under his command, only to calmly loot 4,000 Marks from the city treasury and disappear unhindered.
- The Berliner Morgenpost, 17 October, 1906