Oct 162012
 
Wilhelm Voigt at his arrest

Wilhelm Voigt at his arrest

In October, 1906, Wilhelm Voigt, aged 57, was down on his luck. He’d first been convicted of theft at age 14, and had since then managed a rather impressive career of thievery and forgery. In February of 1906, he’d been released after a 15 year long sentence for having broken into the building of the Court of Justice at Wongrowitz, in Posen, and stolen the money box. It would later be noted by the judicial authorities that the sentence had been “excessively heavy and to have been imposed after a somewhat irregular trial.”[1]

According to the accounts that were later given of his prison time, Voigt had been an exemplary prisoner who had shown great interest in reading, especially history, and apparently upon release, he had expressed a desire to live an honest life. He finally settled down outside of Berlin to work as a shoemaker. His employer, aware of his antecedants, later testified that “Voigt had rewarded his confidence, and had led an honest and most industrious life, and had made himself useful in a variety of ways. He had regularly attended church, had eaten his meals with the family of his employer, and had been kind to the children.” [2] However, as a former prisoner he was an “undesirable”, and on those grounds he was expelled from Berlin by the police. According to his employer, “[w]hen the order for his expulsion came, Voigt had utterly broken down and had felt that his last chance of leading an honest life.”

But apparently Herr Voigt decided not to take this lying down. No, instead he planned and executed a caper which would resonate across the known world. First, he visited several used-clothes stores  and managed to piece together a uniform of an officer of the 1st Foot Guards. Thus equipped, he was ready to execute his coup.

His exact intentions may be disputed – he would later himself claim that “it had not been his original intention to rob the municipal treasury, that what he had chiefly desired to secure was a pass which would have enabled him to earn an honest living” [3] but that might obviously not have reflected the truth. Undisputed, however, is the fact that on 16 October, 1906 he commandeered all in all 11 soldiers from the local garrison and travelled with them by train to Köpenick, where he led them into the town hall. He then placed the local Burgomaster, Dr. Langerhans, and his treasurer under arrest for charges of crooked book keeping. He told the local police to care for law and order and to prevent calls to Berlin for one hour at the local post office. Then he ordered the treasurer to hand over the money box, containing 4,002 Marks. Frau Langerhans, the wife of the Burgomaster, would later state to the press that “it was the extreme politeness of the ‘captain’ towards herself and his official gruffness towards her husband which chiefly convinced her that he was a real officer.” [4]

He then told some of the soldiers to take the arrested men to Berlin for interrogation in two commandeered carriages and left the remaining guards under orders to stay in
their places for half an hour. Himself, he left for the train station and disappeared.

The incident caused great mirth and excitement. Only a few days after the incident The Times could report that in Berlin “(t)he music-halls are already giving representations of the whole drama, illustrated postcards with descriptive verses are being sold in thousands in the streets, and the schoolboys have invented a new game which they call ‘Der Hauptmann von Köpenick’ and in which they re-enact the comedy in all its details.” [5] As the National-Zeitung reported “(i)mmeasurable laughter convulses Berlin and is spreading beyond the confines of our city, beyond the frontiers of Germany, beyond the ocean. The inhabited world is laughing, and if we still had an Olympus, the gods would undoubtedly be laughing too”. [6]

But there was more to the attention that just ridicule, though. To a great many people, this was a comment on German society. In the words of the National-Zeitung only two days after the incident “(t)he boldest and most biting satirist could not make our vaulting militarism, which ‘o’erlaps itself and falls on the other side’ the subject of a satire which could stand comparison with this comic opera transferred from the boards to real life /…/ Somebody’s brains and somebody’s backbone have been lost; the honest finder is invited to hand them in at the office of the Köpenick town-hall”. [7) The Social Democratic Vorwärts found “(t)he chief actor in the farce /…/ much more intimately acquainted with that mental attitude of the officials which has been produced by militarism and by Prussian administrative practice than all those questionable geniuses who have just been philosophizing in the Conservative Press upon the specific Prussian spirit.” [8] The “Köpenick Caper” was considered by many to be the inevitable consequence of the “rule of uniform” and it gave rise a number of acerbic comments. The Berliner Tageblatt summed up the feelings of a great number of Germans when they wrote “(w)e talk of our civic pride, of manly courage before the thrones of Kings, of the State based on law, and of our constitutionalism. It is a strange commentary upon these and upon the rest of the fine phrases we employ, but it is undoubtedly a fact that in Prussia the uniform governs.” [9]

On 26 October, Herr Voigt was arrested and later charged with “unlawfully wearing uniform, with offending against public order, with depriving subjetcs of their liberty, with fraud, and with forgery.” [10] At the trial, sympathies lay almost universally with the defendant. Even the judge in the case the chief in summing up the case passed his chief censure “upon the police system or expelling discharged prisoners from places where they had settled down to a new life and to honest work.” [11] He then admitted several of the extenuating pleas which were advanced by counsel for the defense, and, after having found Voigt guilty on all counts of the indictment, sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment. Kaiser Wilhelm II, however, pardoned him on 16 August, 1908, and Voigt would go on capitalizing on his fame until he died in 1922.

The case gave rise to several books, songs and plays. There was simply something irresistibly fascinating about the simplicity and sheer gall of Wilhelm Voigt’s exploit. Not only had he dared to camly impersonate a Prussian officer; he had managed to do so in such a manner that it never even occurred to the soldiers that he was not the genuine thing. As The Times put it; “(f)rom his studies of the German officer at work and at play this decrepit cobbler of nearly 60 years of age, with his horny hands, his white hairs and his gaunt figure bowed by years of penal servitude, was able to evolve a personage which passed for a captain of the 1st Foot Guards.” [12] And even if the comments on “the rule of uniform” weren’t entirely on the mark, in the general debate following it was claimed that “the soldiers who took part in the raid are understood to have been exonerated from all blame by their genuine military superiors and to have been told that they acted quite correctly. Some /…/ jurisconsults are indulging in speculations as to what would have been the position of those ten soldiers if /…/ they had shot down or bayoneted the unhappy Burgomaster of Köpenick. there appears to be consensus of opinion that they could not have been held legally responsible for their homicidal action.” [13] As such, the interpretation of the event at the time was as important as what had actually transpired.

And poor Dr. Langerhans? Well, not suprisingly, he was overwhelmed by the public ridicule and sent in his resignation a few days after the incident. However, the citizens of Köpenick held a meeting at which they passed a resolution of confidence in their Burgomaster and promised to stand by him.

As a great writer once put it – all’s well that ends well, isn’t it?

Footnotes:
1. “The ‘Captain Of Köpenick.’.” Times [London, England] 3 Dec. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012
2. Ibidem
3. Ibidem
4. “The Kopenick Raid.” Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
5. “The Köpenick Raid.” Times [London, England] 20 Oct. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
6. The National-Zeitung, as translated and referred in
The Times; “The Kopenick Raid.” Times [London, England] 19 Oct. 1906:
3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.

7. As translated and referred in The Times; “The Kopenick Raid.” Times
[London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14
Oct. 2012.

8. As translated and referred in The Times; “The Kopenick Raid.” Times
[London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14
Oct. 2012.

9. As translated and referred in The Times; “The Kopenick Raid.” Times
[London, England] 19 Oct. 1906: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14
Oct. 2012.

10. The ‘Captain Of Köpenick.’.” Times [London, England] 3 Dec. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012
11. Ibidem
12. “The ‘Captain’ Of Köpenick.” Times [London, England] 30 Oct. 1906: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
13. “The Köpenick Raid.” Times [London, England] 22 Oct. 1906: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.

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