Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was a shoemaker from East Prussia. During the course of his lifetime Voigt was sentenced to 25 years in jail for committing a number of crimes, most of them having to do with theft or fraud. His most well-known exploit took place in the year 1906, where Voigt pulled off a heist that has earned itself its own Wikipedia page. This daring crime that took place over a century ago warranted the imposter Voigt the moniker of the “Captain of Köpenick.” You can read about it for yourself here.
Now you may find this article a bit confusing. This is probably due to the fact that the article is written in German. An abridged version in English can be found here. This account is much less thorough but is still adequate in its telling of the incident.
To quickly summarize, Voigt dressed himself in a captain’s uniform, convinced a squad of soldiers to invade the town hall of the city of Cöpenick, arrested the mayor and robbed the city treasury of close to $21,000. This all was done by a man who had been labeled as “undesirable” and forced out of towns because of his prison record. He was a social outcast who was able to convince highly trained soldiers, esteemed city officials and other members of the general public to fall for this hoax and obey his commands, and it was only by combining a number of rhetorical tools that Voigt was able to pull off such a feat.
Voigt’s illusion of ethos was the primary factor in his being able to carry out such a crime. According to the book Rhetoric in Civic Life, ethos is defined as “that which is ‘in the character of the speaker’” (12). Most of Voigt’s rhetorical power laid in the fact that his audience believed him to be an army captain. A captain is generally characterized as being a brave, honest and intelligent person. By assuming this prestigious title, the soldiers naturally believed Voigt to be a wise and courageous leader. They would have no reason to question his command because it is this reputable title that gave him the authority, or socially recognized power, to give the orders he did. Voigt knew that by posing as a captain, the soldiers would conform their actions to his instructions.
However, we know that Voigt was not really a captain. His mannerisms, speech and uniform created the persona that allowed him to be so convincing. Persona is described in Rhetoric in Civic Life as “the character, role, identity, authority, and image a rhetor constructs and performs during a rhetorical act” (150). While serving one of his prison sentences, Voigt was in the charge of a jailor who kept order in a very militaristic way. This disciplined instruction taught Voigt how an army captain would act and speak. After he had served his sentence and was released, he was able to procure a proper uniform. Voigt knew how to create an image that would be convincing to his audience, the soldiers who he wanted to follow his commands. In any situation, what a captain tells his men is reliable, unquestionable and exactly what Voigt needed to pull of his heist; by identifying himself as part of the military, Voigt’s values supposedly lined up with those of the soldiers he hoodwinked. They all had the common interest of serving and protecting the public. If Voigt, their captain and superior, ordered them to arrest town officials and seize the city treasury, the soldiers were going to obey him without question.
Even after the deception was eventually discovered and Voigt was caught, he was not harshly punished. He was pardoned by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II himself because the Kaiser was said to have been pleased with the authority and reverence commanded by his military, and he found the whole situation rather amusing. This reverence was due to the social power held by military captains; according to Rhetoric in Civic Life this is "the influence that people possess within a particular social structure, and that enables them to induce others to act" (163). The high ranking military officials are respected and obeyed by all; by impersonating an officer, Voigt possessed the authority to convince others that what he was doing was not criminal. Also, his crimes did not physically hurt anyone, and most people saw the whole incident as comical. That is why a statue of Voigt now stands on the steps of the very same city hall that he robbed all those years ago.
By combining the right tools of rhetoric, Voigt was able to create a trusted identity, convince others of his authority and establish a credible ethos. In doing all this, Voigt was able to steal an enormous sum of money and secure his place in history as the Captain of Köpenick. It just goes to show that rhetoric can be and is most definitely used in every situation.
Palczewsky, Catherine Helen., Richard Ice, and John Fritch. Rhetoric in Civic Life. State College, PA: Strata Pub., 2012. Print.
"Hauptmann Köpenick" by Lienhard Schulz at de.wikipedia - Transferred from de.wikipedia - de:Bild:Hauptmann Köpenick.JPG.first upload: 22:12, May 11, 2003 - de:Wikipedia by the photographer. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons