The story of the bogus “Captain of Kopenick” made nearly all of Germany rock with laughter.
Between 1864 and 1891, Wilhelm Voigt was sentenced to prison for a total of 25 years for thefts and forgery. The longest sentence was a conviction for 15 years for theft. He was released on 12 February 1906.
Voigt then hoboed from place to place until he went to live with his sister in Rixdorf near Berlin but police expelled him as undesirable, based solely on the fact that he was a former prisoner. Officially he left for Hamburg, although he remained in Berlin as an unregistered resident.
On 16 October 1906 Voigt was ready for his next caper. Previously he had purchased parts of used captain’s uniforms from different shops and tested their effect on soldiers. Voigt took the uniform out of baggage storage, put it on and went to the local army barracks, hailed four grenadiers and a sergeant and told them to come with him. Indoctrinated to obey officers without question, they followed. He dismissed the commanding sergeant to report to his superiors and later commandeered 6 more soldiers from a shooting range. Then he took a train to Köpenick, east of Berlin, occupied the local city hall with his soldiers and told them to cover all exits. 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.
He had the treasurer von Wiltberg and mayor Georg Langerhans arrested, supposedly for suspicions of crooked bookkeeping, and confiscated 4002 marks and 37 pfennigs – with a receipt, of course (he signed it with his former jail director’s name). Then he commandeered two carriages and told the grenadiers to take the arrested men to the Neue Wache in Berlin for interrogation. He told the remaining guards to stand in their places for half an hour and then left for the train station. He later changed into civilian clothes and disappeared.
Voigt was arrested on 26 October and on 1st December sentenced to four years in prison for forgery, impersonating an officer and wrongful imprisonment. However, much of the public opinion was on his side and Kaiser Wilhelm II pardoned him in 1908. There are some claims that even the Kaiser had been amused by the incident, referring to him as an amiable scoundrel, and being pleased with the authority and feelings of reverence that his military obviously commanded in the general population.
The English were also amused, seeing it as provided confirmation of their stereotypes about Germans. In an October 1906 issue, the editors of The Illustrated London News would note gleefully:
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. Offenses 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.