As a boy, so many years ago, I worked in various shops in Hassocks: delivering newspapers, meat and even a milk round. The milk round had some moments, I can tell you, but not yet – except for the fact that the owner of the dairy was a man called Voigt. He owned a rather splendid estate car which of course was motorised, but sadly my milk trolley enjoyed no such luxury and I had to push it around the village with my own hands. Anyway, I digress.
This story is about a Mr Voigt but not the chap in Hassocks.
Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt (1849 – 1922) was a German impostor. In 1906, masquerading as a Prussian military officer, he rounded up a number of soldiers and placed them under his “command”, and proceeded to “confiscate” more than 4,000 marks from a municipal treasury. He became known as The Captain of Köpenick. Although he served two years in prison, he became a folk hero and was pardoned by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Voigt’s story as an imposter is as follows:
In 1863, aged only 14, he was sentenced to 14 days in prison for theft, which led to his expulsion from school. He learned shoe-making from his father. Between 1864 and 1891, Voigt was sentenced to prison for a total of 25 years for thefts, forgery and burglary. The longest sentence was a 15-year conviction for an unsuccessful burglary of a court cashier’s office. He was released on 12 February 1906.
Eight months later, on 16 October 1906, Voigt was ready for his next caper and return to crime. He had purchased parts of used captain’s uniforms from different shops and tested their effect on soldiers. He had resigned from the shoe factory ten days previously. He took the uniform out of baggage storage, put it on and went to the local army barracks, stopped four grenadiers and a sergeant on their way back to barracks 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 six 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.
Voigt ordered the arrest of the Treasurer von Wiltberg and Mayor Georg Langerhans, 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 just 10 days after his escapade (a former cellmate who knew about Voigt’s plans had tipped the police in anticipation of the high reward). Voigt was sentenced to four years in prison for forgery, impersonating an officer and wrongful imprisonment. However, much of public opinion was on his side and the Kaiser pardoned him, purportedly saying ‘Mr. Voigt was quite the amiable scoundrel’.
After his death, Voigt become a legendary figure in popular German lore and literature, including many films and dramas, especially the tragi-comedy in 1931 Der Hauptmann von Kopenick (The Captain from Kopenick). Variations of the event appeared in vaudeville sketches, films, dramas and literature. Popular film versions were made in 1906, 1931 and 1956. TV versions appeared more recently in 1960, 1997 and 2001.
The Voigt story may have a parallel with Francis Percy Toplis (1896 – 1920). Toplis was a British criminal and imposter active during and after the First World War. Before that war he was imprisoned for attempted rape. During the war he served as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but regularly posed as an officer while on leave, wearing a monocle. After the war he became notorious following the murder of a taxi driver and the wounding of a police officer who attempted to apprehend him. The manhunt was major news at the time. He was tracked down and killed in a gunfight with police. There’s some interesting information on the rogue here. But back to Voigt: It’s even possible that Voigt’s role as a trickster using a false uniforms influenced Adolf Hitler’s way of starting World War II. In case you didn’t know, it started like this: A 43-year old unmarried ethnic Polish Catholic farmer – Franciszek (Franz) Honiok – died on the last day of August 1939, one day before Germany invaded Poland. Poor Honiok was guilty of no crime, yet he was to die because a charade was about to be played out designed to be used an excuse for the invasion of Poland. Adolf Hitler had told his Generals on 22nd August 1939 that he would make up a fairy story to justify his planned invasion of Poland. The carefully contrived plan was for Nazi Party Schutzstaffel (SS) operatives to dress in Polish uniforms, attack a German radio transmitter station in Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia (now called Gliwice, Poland) and give the impression to the world that the Poles had dared to try to usurp Germany. The attack at Gliwice is widely regarded as a false flag operation, staged with some two-dozen similar German incidents on the eve of the invasion of Poland leading up to World War II in Europe.