Today in History
16.10.1906: The Captain from Köpenick
Köpenick historian Claus-Dieter Sprink reconstructs the circumstances: "Imagine the scene: around 2.30 pm a train arrived at Köpenick Station. Wilhelm Voigt alighted dressed as the Captain from Köpenick, accompanied by ten soldiers. Together with the soldiers, he marched along the station street in the direction of the old town, occupied the town hall and arrested the mayor. Then, he counted out the city treasury containing 4,000 DM and 37 pfennigs, and took off with the money."

Wilhelm Voigt had spent 27 out of 54 years of his life in prison – his former profession had been that of crook and thief rather than that of a shoemaker.

Claus-Dieter Sprink: "Voigt was a clever guy, he was very crafty. On the day before, he had sussed out the area around the town hall, explored every passageway, every gate, every path. He hadn’t served a day in the Prussian Army but was, nevertheless, familiar with all military formalities. He led his soldiers so well that people thought he was a real captain".

The Prussian authoritarian state was the butt of everyone’s jokes. And Voigt had succeeded in exposing the preposterousness of the staunch belief in uniforms and unconditional obedience. But this had been completely unintentional. Voigt’s real motive was to acquire a passport.

Claus-Dieter Sprink: "After his final dismissal in 1906, when he had reached the age of 54, he tried to live the bit of life that was left him in well-ordered circumstances. And he tried to find work as a shoemaker, a trade that he had learned in prison. This was denied him. He was caught up in a vicious circle of red tape: no passport, no work, no home".

What Voigt didn’t know was that no passports were issued in the Köpenick Town Hall. Thus he had no choice but to settle for the city treasury. However, police were soon got on his trail and after ten days he was back in prison. But this time, he was a hero, he had the sympathies of the people on his side. Even the Emperor found the matter amusing.

Voigt was given the best defence lawyer in Germany who presented him for what he was: a victim of societal circumstances, of inhumane bureaucracy. Voigt only had to spend two years in prison after which he began a new life, this time as a media star.

He made public appearances throughout Europe and even in the USA. Everywhere he went, he was welcomed as a simple man who had led the authorities up the garden path. Wilhelm Voigt became rich and richer until he lost everything when hyperinflation hit Germany. He died impoverished in Luxembourg in 1922.

But his story lives on. The playwright Carl Zuckmayer produced the "Captain from Köpenick" play in 1930 and it proved to be a roaring success, although it was later banned by the National Socialist regime.

The play is still staged in German speaking countries today, with various famous actors in Voigt’s role. There are constantly new film versions and theatre productions of "The Captain from Köpenick."
Zitat des Tages
Zitat des Tages
Which famous Irish writer was born on 16 October 1854?
  Oscar Wilde
  James Joyce
  William Butler Yeats