On This Day in Berlin History | 16 October 1906: The Captain of Köpenick

 

The “Captain’s” uniform

16th October 16 1906: On this day in Berlin history, a man dressed as a Captain of the Prussian Guards entered the town hall of Köpenick outside of Berlin. The moustachioed “Hauptmann” briskly ordered the eleven soldiers accompanying him, as well as the gendarmerie officials present, to cordon off the area. He then gave the police chief leave, who subsequently took the chance to head home for a bath.

Placing the town secretary and Mayor under arrest, the uniformed man seized the town’s treasury of almost 4,000 mark “for inspection” stating “irregularities in connection with the public sewage works”. Ordering his soldiers to guard the town hall for a further half an hour, he then left with the funds (about the equivalent of 22,000 euro today). After reportedly downing a glass of beer “in one go”, he boarded the train back to Berlin and disappeared.

 

Voigt’s arrest sheet

 

The man’s name was Wilhelm Voigt, and actually he was not a Captain at all. In truth he was a shoemaker and ex-convict who had found the uniform in a second-hand store. Noticing the authority his new garb endowed him with, he had seized the opportunity to undertake this caper. Exploiting Prussian society’s tendency to blindly obey anyone in uniform, his plan had succeeded without a hitch.

 

 

Voigt’s grave bears the inscription ‘The Captain of Koepenick’

 

Unfortunately for Voigt, his run of luck soon came to an end when police were tipped off by a former cellmate of his who knew of the plan. He was sentenced to four years in prison but incredibly was later pardoned by Kaiser Wilhelm II who seemed to admire the ingenuity of the heist.

The “Captain of Köpenick” became somewhat of a celebrity in Germany and beyond and his legacy continues to be celebrated as an example of an individual getting the better of the establishment.

 

 

 

 


This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this October. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day – February 23, 1778 – Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben of the Prussian Army Arrives at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to Train the Continental Army

Monday, February 23, 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

 

Baron von Steuben

Two hundred and forty-two years ago today, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, better known as Baron von Steuben, arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to help train Commander George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.

Born just 90 miles southwest of Berlin, he joined the Prussian Army when he was 17 years old and served as second lieutenant during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). After earning the rank of captain in 1761, he would then serve as a secretary of the General Staff to Prussian King Frederick the Great. This experience would arm him with a wealth of knowledge and even give him the opportunity to take part in special courses of military instruction that were delivered by Frederick the Great himself.

Prussian King Frederick the Great
 

In 1777 von Steuben met Benjamin Franklin during a visit to Paris. Franklin certainly realized the potential of having an officer with Prussian general staff training in the Continental Army, but he wasn’t in a position to offer von Steuben a position or salary at that time. It wouldn’t be until later that year that von Steuben was introduced to Commander in Chief George Washington by means of a letter from Franklin as “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s Service,” an exaggeration of his actual credentials that most likely was a mistranslation of his service record. In any event, he was advanced travel funds and left Europe from Marseilles, arriving in New Hampshire in December 1777.

Von Steuben Memorial on the north side of the Royal Stables in Potsdam’s Neuer Markt

On this day – Monday, February 23, 1778 – he reported to the Continental Army’s famous encampment, Valley Forge, and reported for duty as a volunteer. According to a soldier’s impression of von Steuben (on display at the Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania today):

“The Baron was of the ancient fabled God of War…he seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars. The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea. He turned the volunteers into a great army.”
He would soon serve as Inspector General and Major General of the Continental Army and is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army in teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines. Eventually, he would serve as Washington’s chief of staff in the final years of the war.

 

In 1911 the United States Congress presented the city of Potsdam with a memorial statue of von Steuben. Unfortunately, this was melted down after WWII, but it was replaced in the mid 1990s with a replica that now stands near the site of the original one in the heart of Potsdam’s Neuer Markt.

German-American Steuben Parade in NYC
And on the third Saturday in September, the annual German-American Steuben Parade is held in New York City to honor von Steuben as one of the most influential German-Americans who profoundly contributed to America’s fight for independence, as well as for his training the thousands of young American soldiers who fought to achieve victory in the American Revolutionary War.

Frederick The Great Dies: On This Day – August 17, 1786

The historic Berlin and Potsdam based House of Hohenzollern produced nine kings who ruled the Kingdom of Prussia, and three emperors – who carried the post-1871 title ‘German Emperor’ – from 1701-1918.

This dynasty played a pivotal and extremely influential role when it came to shaping the politics and history of central Europe for over two centuries.

Every Prussian King or German Emperor was either named Friedrich or Wilhelm; or together, Friedrich-Wilhelm (obviously this family lacked a ‘how to name your baby’ book in those days).

But these two names would eventually resonate with the times and go on to be synonymous with the word ‘Prussia.’

Without a doubt, Prussia’s most significant ruler sat on the throne for 46 years from 1740-1786, ingeniously using Prussia’s army to bring large territorial gains to its kingdom and to mold Prussia into a European powerhouse by the time he passed away #OTD, August 17, 1786.

His name was Friedrich II (Frederick II). But history now commonly refers to him as “Frederick the Great.”

Born in 1712, he was raised under strict military discipline and was dominated by the overbearing, aggressive, and decidedly obnoxious personality of his father – the “Soldier King” – Friedrich Wilhelm I, who had no sympathy for Frederick’s sensitive character or his musical and intellectual pursuits as a young boy.

In 1730, after the young Fredrick had had enough of his dad’s physical and psychological abuse, he tried to escape the Kingdom with a dear friend of his. Unfortunately for Frederick, he was quickly caught, imprisoned, and forced to watch his friend be beheaded

To save his own life, he reconciled with his dad, the King, and obeyed his orders to marry a lady named Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern (whom his dad had chosen for him), and moved 40 miles north of Berlin to the city of Neuruppin where he was able to take command of his own regiment.

Upon taking the throne in 1740, Frederick the Great claimed Silesia (current-day southwest Poland) from Austria. The cause for Frederick the Great’s claim to this area did not prevail for many years and it would subsequently cost him three exhausting wars: The First and Second Silesian Wars in 1740-1742 and 1744-1745, respectively, and then the so-called “Seven Years’ War” from 1756-1763

In the end and after all that mess, the result was that he’d brilliantly and successfully turned Prussia into one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe, and had ultimately laid the foundations of Prussian imperialism which would be achieved less than a century later in 1871.

Frederick, the enlightened ruler, who preferred to see himself as the “first servant of the state,” built his charming Sanssouci Palace on a terrace of vineyards in Potsdam in 1747. Here, he passionately played his flute, collected art, and debated philosophy with prominent guests like the writer and philosopher Voltaire.

Yet, it was here at his beloved Sanssouci that “Old Fritz” – as he was commonly referred to as later on in life – passed away at the age of 74 – 232 years ago today.

Contrary to his will, his mortal remains were buried until 1944 in the Garrison Church in Potsdam. After a tumultuous odyssey during WWII, his coffin was laid to rest at the Hohenzollern Castle in southwest Germany for nearly forty years.

Finally, on the 205th anniversary of his death #OTD, August 17, 1991, his wish had finally been granted, and his coffin was laid to rest in the crypt on the terrace at Sanssouci that had been made for this purpose during his lifetime.

With potatoes normally decorating his grave (“Der preußische Kartoffelkönig” or “Potato King” was one of several nicknames he gained over the years for his faith in the humble vegetable that he thought his farmers should concentrate on growing), he now rests in peace alongside his beloved greyhounds at Sanssouci.