One of the fundamental values of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany was the idea of militarism, but this attitude was one of the reasons that World War One broke out. Militarism was such a fundamental part of his reign, in fact, that his generals and admirals were frequently awarded more authority than his politicians, which led to inflated spending on defence and, eventually, to an arms race that would encourage all European nations to begin stockpiling weapons.
The story of ‘The Captain of Kőpenick’ is regularly used to illustrate the value militarism held in Germany. Kőpenick, who was actually a shoe maker who went by the name of Wilhelm Voigt, had a past littered with crime and struggled to find himself any honest work or a place to call home. However, he did manage to get hold of a second hand German army officer’s uniform and decided to dress himself as a captain in the German Army and travel to Berlin. Wearing the uniform, he found he held great authority and even ordered four German soldiers to fall in behind him. Such was the status of the uniform that they did as they were told, without once questioning his authority.
The story goes that more soldiers joined his group as it made its way to a railway station in Berlin, where they caught a train to Kőpenick, which was a small town just outside the city. It was here that Voigt ordered three policemen to fall behind him and join the soldiers, asserting the military authority over the police, and the whole group marched to the town hall.
With the group behind him, Voigt demanded that he be given 4,002 Marks, which was done without question, and Voigt handed over a receipt before ordering the mayor of the town to be arrested. The mayor was accompanied by the soldiers to Berlin’s new police station.
Voigt continued to play his role for a further six hours before his authority was eventually questioned and he was arrested. He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison, although he would serve just two thanks to Wilhelm II, who saw the humour in his actions, gave him a pardon.
Voigt’s story became so well-known that he was sent many presents during his stay in prison, and upon his release he took advantage of this celebrity status by dressing as a Germany army officer and taking a tour around Europe. Eventually, his story was turned into both a play and a film, openly illustrating the huge influence the military had over Germany. This attitude of giving the military free reign and blindly following their commands stretched into World War One, where officers had complete power over their troops.
"Germany in 1900". HistoryLearning.com. 2019. Web.