In October 1906, a man in a Prussian captain’s uniform arrested the mayor and treasurer of Köpenick, outside Berlin, for “irregularities.” He demanded to see the town’s funds, which were duly handed over to him. He then marched off, ostensibly to inspect them—and just kept on marching.
Ten days later the law finally caught up with the “Captain of Köpenick,” who turned out to be Wilhelm Voigt, an impoverished shoemaker whose military flimflam act soon turned him into a folk hero. Until his October 1906 escapade, Voigt had been a lifelong resident of Köpenick, though few knew much about him. His daily life was filled with misery, and his private economy was as full of holes as his customers’ shoes. Although he had some minor conflicts with the law and short stints of prison behind him, he was reportedly filled with a burning desire to return to an honest livelihood.
But people seeking employment in the regimented society of early 20th-century Germany sometimes faced a dilemma. Voight could not get work because he had no papers. And he could not get any papers because he had no work. He could not even get a passport that would have enabled him to go abroad and seek his fortune elsewhere.
Then one day in 1906 Voigt found an impressive captain’s uniform from the 1st Regiment of the Prussian Guards in a secondhand shop. He purchased the outfit and dressed up in that along with a pair of shiny army boots and a captain’s hat. Then he went for a promenade.
Casually walking around, he was astonished at the attention he suddenly attracted and the respect everyone now showed him. This gave him a feeling that he possessed a new and special power.
When a platoon of 10 soldiers passed by and smartly saluted him, Voigt was apparently inspired to action. He ordered them to halt and then commanded them to follow him, to “execute some official matters of importance.” The “captain” then marched his troop to the town hall.
All Voigt originally had in mind was to force his way in to get a passport. When he arrived, however, he found out that the passport office was not in the town hall but located at the opposite end of town. In desperation, he immediately arrested the Burgomeister and the Stadtobersekretär of the town for what he called “irregularities committed in connection with the public sewage works.”
The sight of the captain, soldiers, rifles and bayonets instantly deflated the mayor and the treasurer. They submitted to arrest and obeyed the captain’s order for the confiscation of the municipal treasury, handing its total amount of more than 4,000 Reichsmarks to him. They then waited as he departed to count the money, confident that he would find nothing amiss and free them soon. They ended up waiting a long time before discovering that the captain—and the municipal treasury—had disappeared.
The captain’s moment of good fortune and glory did not last. Ten days later he was arrested and subsequently tried and sentenced. His story should have ended there, but remarkably it did not. Within days, word of his absurdly successful charade had spread like wildfire all over Germany, then Europe and the world. An ordinary shoemaker had outsmarted the Germans, with their attention to “Ordnung” and their robotlike Prussian discipline, and in essence he had robbed them with their own weapons. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II is reported to have laughed out loud when he heard about the Captain of Köpenick.
Inspired by the incident, a playwright named Rottländer wrote a five-act drama of Der Hauptmann von Köpenick in 1912. In 1930 Carl Zuckmeyer penned a similar drama, and in the same year Wilhelm Schäfer wrote a novel about the infamous captain. In 1956 Heinz Rühmann played the lead role in Helmut Käutner’s motion picture version of Der Hauptmann von Köpenick.
And what of Wilhelm Voigt, the man who started it all? Although sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, he was soon granted a free pardon. He then traveled around Germany, earning money by selling postcards adorned with his own portrait. In 1909 he turned up in Luxembourg City, living at No. 5, Rue de Fort Niepperg. Using Luxembourg as his base of operations, he toured for some time in various countries with different circuses, on show as the Captain of Köpenick. He always returned to Luxembourg, however, and in later years he reportedly lived there as a pauper, wrapped in his old gray military coat with the captain’s cap on his head.
When World War I broke out in 1914, the Germans occupied Luxembourg— and Wilhelm Voigt found himself under arrest again, for “inadmissibly wearing a uniform.” Sometime later someone finally realized the truth, and Voigt was released again.
The captain of Köpenick, who had acquired all his military knowledge from books in prison libraries, died in 1922. His funeral was paid for by public means, but the authorities would not spend a penny on a tombstone. However, the management and members of the Circus Sarrasani, with whom he had occasionally worked, chipped in to pay for a monument, and the Sarrasanis also kept his resting place in good order for the next 15 years.
After the circus’ self-imposed commitment ended, there was a time during which Voigt’s burial place was in danger of being demolished. That situation resulted in an outcry, even in the European Parliament, where members spoke in favor of unlimited prolongation of the maintenance of the captain’s burial place.
In 1975 the Tourist Office of Luxembourg City committed itself to preserving his resting place, while the city administration promised to keep the place in good order. Meanwhile, Voigt’s old tombstone had nearly crumbled to dust, so Luxembourg artist Jean-Paul Georg created a new one.
The Captain of Köpenick was the center of drama to the last—and well beyond. As the funeral procession was on its way to reinter Voigt’s remains at his new resting place in the Notre-Dame cemetery, it passed a platoon of French soldiers, and a member of the funeral cortège informed its commanding officer that the famous Captain of Köpenick was going on his last journey.
Misinterpreting what he heard and believing that a special officer of the Luxembourg army was passing by, the Frenchman immediately commanded his platoon to halt and fire a salute in the captain’s honor, as a last gesture of respect to a brother officer.
Why is the captain still so popular, even a century later? Somehow he became a symbol of liberty and independence, especially among Luxembourgers, who remember their country being overrun by the German military machine in two world wars. Many other nationalities perceive him as a rebel against rigid, bureaucratic, war-driven societies.
Luxembourg City still holds official honorary ceremonies for the captain annually. Time and again an anonymous admirer lays down flowers and lights candles at the neatly kept grave of the world’s most famous shoemaker, at what is one of the most frequently photographed burial sites in Luxembourg. Thousands continue to visit this monument to a little man’s nose-thumbing exploitation of a war-worshipping society’s adherence to authority.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.