Posts Tagged ‘The Captain from Koepenick’

The Captain from Koepenick Ruse

Monday, May 30th, 2016

The Captain from Koepenick was an out-of-work ex-convict who became a legend in Germany after impersonating a Prussian First Guard officer. His real name was Wilhelm Voigt. His is a true story. Voigt decided to masquerade as a military officer because he was caught in a vicious circle: He could not get a passport because he was unemployed, and he could not get work because he didn’t have a passport. The Captain from Koepenick (Der Hauptmann von Koepenick in German) has been the basis of numerous films, plays, television shows and musicals.

Who was the Captain from Koepenick?

Wilhelm Voigt was born in 1849 to a shoemaker’s family in Tilsit, East Prussia (now Sovetsk, Russia). From the age of 14, he was in and out of prison for petty crimes. Upon his umpteenth discharge from the penitentiary in 1906, Voigt decided to start an honest life but found himself caught in a dilemma: His prison record made it impossible for him to obtain residency, and without prove of residency he could not get work. A passport could have fixed his problem. Therefore, he purchased a used captain’s uniform and commandeered several grenadiers to Koepenick’s Town Hall near Berlin, Germany (now part of Berlin). Indoctrinated to obey officers without question, they followed his orders. The fake Captain from Koepenick then arrested the mayor and city treasurer and ordered them to be hauled to the Neue Wache in Berlin for questioning (http://www.walled-in-berlin/j-elke-ertle/neue-wache-in-berlin/). In the meantime, Voigt tried to steal a passport from the passport department. When he found out that Koepenick’s Town Hall did not handle passports at all, he turned to Plan B and ordered confiscation of the entire town treasury. The faux Captain of Kopeenick made off with 3,557.45 marks (about €21,000 in today’s money).

The unmasking of the Captain from Koepenick

Despite returning the money, Wilhelm Voigt was sentenced to four years in prison. However, two years into his sentence, Prussian Emperor Wilhelm II pardoned him, and Voigt was a free man. After his release, the faux Captain of Koepenick immediately capitalized on his newfound fame: He gave speeches, toured in Europe and the United States and published his autobiography. Finally, in 1910 he was issued a passport to Luxembourg where he remained until his death in 1922.

What makes this a timeless story?

The Captain from Koepenick ruse demonstrates the absurdity of unconditional obedience and absolute authority. Uniforms (clothes) should not make a man. Even today, Wilhelm Voigt is still considered a hero in Germany. His story is taught in German schools as an example of courageous resistance to unjust government and authority.

The Captain from Koepenick Legacy

First buried in Luxembourg, Wilhelm Voigt was reburied in Berlin in 1999. A statue of the “Captain from Koepenick” in uniform stands in front of Koepenick’s Town Hall. The uniform itself is on exhibit inside the Town Hall. A plaque describes the deception.

Statue of Wilhelm Voigt impersonating the Captain from Koepenick, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016,

Statue of Wilhelm Voigt impersonating the Captain from Koepenick, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016,


To watch a video of the 1956 movie “Der Hauptmann von Koepenick” online, visit For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of