The Merry Pranks of Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, Mennonite Trickster and Dramatic Hero

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt

About 15 kilometers south of the birthplace of Hermann Sudermann, across the Nemunas River in Lithuanian East Prussia, lies the city of Tilsit (now Sovetsk, Kaliningrad), where Dutch-origin Mennonites lived and maintained a meetinghouse west of Tilsit at Alt Pokraken.

To a Mennonite family in Tilsit was born Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt on February 13, 1849, destined to become a legendary figure in popular German lore and literature, including many films and dramas, especially the tragicomedy Der Hauptmann von Kopenick (1931), in English The Captain from Kopenick.

From the time he was 14 years old in 1864 until 1906, this poor shoemaker was imprisoned, off and on, for crimes of theft and forgery. When he was released in 1906 and tried to “go straight,” he was unable to maintain a residence and a job because of his prison record. The ruse he concocted to solve his problem made him famous.

Knowing the almost absolute authority of the Prussian military, he obtained a uniform of the Prussian First Guard and, claiming to be a captain, commandeered two squads of Guard soldiers, who obeyed him absolutely. He took them on a train to Kopenick, a town near Berlin and now part of the city, where he marched them to the town hall, arrested the mayor for “irregular accounting for duct work,” ordered the confiscation of the town treasury, and left with 3557 marks.

He was arrested ten days later, when someone who had overheard his plans betrayed him, and sentenced to four years in prison. However, the Prussian people, and even Emperor Wilhelm II, were so amused by the incident, and the popular outcry for his pardon was so great, that the emperor pardoned him on August 16, 1908. Many people regarded his prank as a perfect satirical example of the cowing of the Prussian populace by the Prussian military.

His release from prison was greeted by a huge, curious, unruly crowd, which security forces eventually subdued, in the process arresting 17 people for disturbing the peace. Immediately the press offered him money for exclusive rights to his story, and Friedrich began capitalizing on his fame by making a phonograph record, which earned him 200 marks.

He signed photographs of himself in military and civilian uniforms, gave speeches, and performed as “Captain” in clubs, fairs and circuses. Barnum and Bailey sponsored a tour by him to European cities. Wax figures were made of him in Berlin and at Madame Tussaud’s in London. Even the Guard members that he had co-opted performed in public for pay. In 1909 his autobiography, How I Became Captain of Kopenick, was published in Leipzig.

Voight's statue, Kopenick City Hall

Voight's statue, Kopenick City Hall

In May 1910 he was able to get official papers and obtain a passport to Luxembourg, where he lived until his death in poverty on March 1, 1922. In Luxembourg he became one of the first persons to own an automobile. Ironically, during the German invasion of Luxembourg in World War I, he was briefly held and interrogated.

In 1961 Circus Sarrasani bought a gravestone for him. In 1999 he was reburied in Berlin. In 1996 a monument to him was erected outside the Kopenick Town Hall and a plaque was placed on the Berlin Town Hall. His officer’s uniform survives in an exhibit in the Kopenick Town Hall.

Following his raid on Kopenick, variations of the event appeared in vaudeville sketches, films, dramas and literature. Popular film versions were made in 1906, 1931 and 1956. Television versions appeared more recently in 1960, 1997 and 2001.

The classic dramatic adaptation of the story, with pervasive satire of German militarism, was written by Carl Zuckmayer and produced in 1931. And in 1971, the distinguished British dramatist John Mortimer wrote an English adaptation of Zuckmayer’s drama that was performed at the National Theatre in London, and is available in print (London: Metheun, 1971).

Voigt was a Mennonite trickster hero, in the colorful tradition of even Menno Simons himself, as the legends of Menno in the coach and Menno on the molasses barrel confirm. Mennonites might want to ignore Voigt’s criminal history and tendencies, as well as the fact that Voigt held up Kopenick for practical reasons, not political satire. But the popular German understanding that his merry prank constituted a brilliant critique of the mob’s acceptance of military domination is an element that resonates with longstanding Mennonite feelings and thoughts.

Zuckmayer’s text, and even Mortimer’s adaptation of it, may be too historically and culturally dated to make it an attractive production choice for Mennonite theater groups today, although it would be worth a try. But since there have already been so many different revisions and adaptations of the basic story, perhaps a talented Mennonite playwright could produce a free-wheeling, hilarious version that would resonate with current politics.

A working title might be: “Freddy Vogt Corrupts the Marines.”

For more information, and a long bibliography, see the German Wikipedia article,“Der Hauptmann von Kopenick.” E.B.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.