Wilhelm Voigt - Der Hauptmann von Köpenick

13 February 1849, 165 years ago, the shoemaker Wilhelm Voigt, who gained fame as the Captain of Köpenick (Hauptmann von Köpenick) and gave the German Empire a lesson in overstated obedience, was born in Tilsit.


“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 Illustrated London News”, October 1906)


A photo of Wilhelm Voigt (to the left) wearing a Prussian officer’s coat over civilian clothing during a visit to London in 1910.


Around noontime on 16 October 1906 in a western part of Berlin during the changing of the guard, a captain of the 1st Foot Guards (1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß) commandeered a platoon, marched them to the Berlin city railway, took them on a train to nearby Köpenick, bought them lunch and paraded onward to the Köpenick town hall, occupied the building, interned every civil servant to his office, prohibited any phone calls, ordered the present gendamery to cordon off the surroundings and arrested the treasurer and the mayor by order of HM the Kaiser without giving any further credentials than wearing a captain’s uniform. Then he ordered a closing of the town’s accounts, seized the cash holdings, 3.557, 45 marks (about 20.000 Euros), attested a difference to the nominal balance of 1,67 marks, signed a receipt with “von Malzahn, H.i.1.G.R.” (Hauptmann im 1. Garde-Regiment, Captain of the 1st Foot Guards), had the two arrested civil servants carted off to Berlin in a cab under escort, left the rest of the platoon and the gendarms standing guard for half an hour, took a train back to the capital and disappeared.


Uniform of a Captain of the 1st Foot Guards -
in this case: the one Wilhelm Voigt wore

Von Malzahn was actually the name of the prison governor of the jail in Posen where the shoemaker Wilhelm Voigt had served 15 years for his attempt to rob the court cashier’s office in Wongrowitz following four more sentences for forgery of documents and theft. Allegedly, the old soldier von Malzahn had drilled his inmates quite thoroughly and when Wilhelm was released from prison and stayed in Berlin with his sister and could not keep his job because he had no residence permit for the capital and would get none as an ex-con from another province, he came up with the idea to impersonate an army captain to obtain a passport and leave the country – he would get none because he had no residence permit in the first place. Allegedly, Voigt was quite crestfallen when Köpenick’s burgomaster told him that the next passport office was in nearby Teltow when he asked for papers to be issued besides seizing the town accounts. Another reason for Voigt’s cunning plan to capture Köpenick might have been that several million marks were rumored to have been stored in the strongbox of the town hall. Whatever Voigt’s motives might have been, he was arrested a week later by the police after a tip from one of his former fellow prisoners and sentenced to four years hard.


Postcard from 1906 in remembrance of the "Coup d'État of Köpenick" 


The Kaiser almost killed himself laughing after Voigt’s stunt became public and so did the rest of the world, but, on a more somber note, Germany’s emperor added that no other country would be able to copy his underlings’ obedience and discipline and that he’d expect to be able to order a lieutenant to “take ten men and dissolve the Reichstag” any old time. The Kaiser pardoned Voigt after two years, the ex-captain finally got his passport, went to Luxemburg, wrote his memoirs and gained some notoriety for the tone of open anarchy resonating with his many public appearances. When the Great War broke out and Luxemburg was occupied by German troops, Voigt was questioned and an officer noted afterwards “It is difficult to imagine how this pathetic fellow was able to unsettle Prussia once”. Voigt died in 1922 at the age of 72 and made one last bow. A platoon of French soldiers passed by during his funeral in Luxemburg and when the mourners answered the question of their CO about who was buried there with “Le Capitaine de Coepenick”, the French captain ordered his troop to give full military honours.


And more on

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Voigt