THE CROOKED MAYOR
On October 16, 1906, both the mayor and the treasurer of Köpenick, then a small town roughly 20 miles south-east from Berlin (now a borough of the capital), were arrested on suspicion of financial misdeeds.
The arrest was conducted by a small band of soldiers, under the orders of a Prussian First Guard captain. The city hall was surrounded, all exits guarded, and the culprits quickly detained. A sum of 4,002 marks and 37 pfennigs was confiscated.
Grenadiers commandeered two carriages and took the men they arrested to Berlin for interrogation. The remaining servicemen involved in the raid were ordered to stand guard, to prevent anybody from entering the city hall for half an hour.
Their captain, in the meantime, carrying the confiscated monies, left the scene for Köpenick railway station.
THE PROBLEM WITH THIS ARREST? THERE REALLY WAS “NO CAPTAIN”
A few hours earlier, in Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, the “Captain”, a shoemaker turned thief, had slipped into an officer’s uniform he had purchased in separate pieces in flea markets and headed for the local barracks.
Taking advantage of Prussian military men’s infamous blind obedience to authority, Voigt recruited around tem soldiers, ordered them to board the train to Köpenick and implemented one of the most audacious thefts in German history.
Local police, dutifully obedient to the military, ended up participating on the operation and unwittingly assisting Voigt in his endeavours.
It didn’t take long for the authorities to discover what happened (it seems someone that was aware of Voigt’s plan actually denounced him) and arrest the poor Captain, who at the time was 56 years old (he had born on February 13, 1849), and had already served an aggregate 25 years in prison.
The Captain of Köpenick was then sentenced to another 4 years in jail.
It just so happens that Kaiser William II pardoned him on August 16, 1908. Both the monarch and Germany’s public opinion were amazed (and amused) by the daring fraudster.
Voigt became a minor celebrity, recorded a phonograph with the story, wrote his memoirs in 1909, “How I became the Captain of Köpenick”, toured the USA in 1910 and managed to become a character in Madame Tussaud’s museum in London.
In 1910, Voigt moved to Luxembourg, did some work and, strangely enough, ended up receiving a life pension from a rich Berlin dowager.
Unfortunately for him, the brutal inflation that followed WWI threw him back into poverty.
He died in Luxembourg on March 1, 1922.
When he came up with the plan for this bizarre heist in Köpenick, Voigt was living adrift in Berlin, unemployed and thus unregistered.
Having been released earlier in 1906, Voigt tried to work as a shoemaker. However, because of his criminal record, city authorities did not allow him to practice his craft. This administrative decision threw the “Captain” into a cruel cunumdrum: technically he could not live in the city without certain documents issued by the municipality, but the documents in question could not be granted to those that didn’t have a job.
It was then that the audacious impostor came up with a plan…
For the soldiers, no matter how suspicious they probably were of the old man ordering them around (likely not in the polished accent of the officers they were used to dealing with), it was just easier to obey. His commands, after all, were belowed by someone dressed in the appropriate uniform: Kleider machen Leute” (Clothes Make the Man).
The predictably vexed protests of the mayor and the treasurer were swept aside and, once the Captain signed the appropriate receipt for the confiscated funds, everyone felt their duties were satisfied and the money handedover to the impostor.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
It is easy to dismiss the story as funny anecdote concerning German militarism. These were, after all, the soldiers that less than a decade later would dart out of the trenches, advancing towards machine-gun fire in suicidal charges.
However, if we were to try to imagine truthfully what would our actions be under the exact circumstances those soldiers faced, it is not unlikely that our findings would surprise us.
Obedience is ingrained in our education. The signs of authority – be it the uniform, the title or the well pressed suit and tie – command powerful influence upon our will, often suspending autonomy and turning us into robots, no matter how disgruntled or suspicious of those dictating the law.
And the Captain of Köpenick, it should be noted, is far from being the only successful impostor in history. Some, like him, pretend they are someone else…