The influence of the military in Wilhelm II’s Germany is well illustrated by the true story of ‘The Captain of Kőpenick’. The story of the ‘The Captain of Kőpenick’ took place on October 16th 1906. ‘The Captain of Kőpenick’ was in fact a shoe maker called Wilhelm Voigt. Voigt had a criminal past who found it difficult to keep a job once an employer had found out about his past. He also found it difficult to find somewhere long term to live.
Living a hand-to-mouth daily existence Voigt bought for himself a second hand German army officer’s uniform. He dressed himself as a captain in the German Army and went into Berlin. Here he came upon four German soldiers who he ordered to fall in behind him and to follow him. These four men were actual soldiers and automatically assumed that Voigt was a German officer. They did not question his identity – such was the status of the uniform – and did what they were told to do.
More soldiers joined the group as it marched to a railway station in Berlin. Here they caught a train to Kőpenick, a small town outside of Berlin. Here Voigt came across three policemen and he ordered them to fall in behind him and join the soldiers. They did as they were told. They whole group then marched on the town hall. Once at the town hall, Voigt demanded that 4,002 Marks be handed over to him. This was done without anyone questioning the ‘officer’. Voigt handed over a receipt and then ordered that the mayor be arrested. This was duly done and the mayor was accompanied by some soldiers to the newly constructed police station in Berlin built at Unter den Linden. Voigt carried on acting out the part of an army captain for six hours before someone finally questioned his authority and he was arrested. Voigt was sentenced to four years in prison but was released after two years after he received a pardon from Wilhelm II who apparently saw Voigt as nothing more than a ‘cheeky chappie’ – a scoundrel who had actually hurt no-one.
While in prison he was sent presents. On his release Voigt took advantage of his celebrity status by going on a tour of Europe dressed as a German army captain. A play was written about him and his exploits were made into a film.
What Voigt did showed just how influential the military had become in Germany. The simple fact that he was in an officer’s uniform was almost a passport for him to do as he wished without being questioned – and get people doing what he wanted them to do without question. While the story may have a humorous side to it, the blind obedience shown in the story – up to the point of his arrest! – may help to explain why so many German soldiers were killed during trench warfare if they simply obeyed an order by an officer without thought. If they were ordered by an officer to go ‘over the top’ they did so as such behaviour had been instilled into them. The same was almost certainly true for the British Army where obedience to an officer was expected – again as the slaughter in the trenches showed.