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.
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.
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.