Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, 1810
by Heinrich von Kleist, 1810
Though Heinrich von Kleist is remembered above all for the dramas he wrote in the course of his short and tragic life, his stories too have power, passion, and the ability to confront his readers with uncompromising and unsettling depictions of humanity under pressure. "Michael Kohlhaas" was begun in 1804, and about a quarter of the text was printed in 1808 in the sixth issue of the short-lived literary magazine Phöbus. The complete story, which takes up the text from Phöbus virtually unchanged, was first published along with other tales by Kleist in his Tales (Erzählungen) in 1810.
The basis of "Michael Kohlhaas" is an episode from Germany's troubled history in the early sixteenth century. A certain Hans Kohlhase (Kleist altered the name slightly in his story), smarting from a sense of injustice, raised a small band of followers and terrorized Saxony over a period of some 18 years, from 1522 to 1540; he was finally executed, along with his companion Georg Nagelschmidt, in Berlin. From this material Kleist constructs a story whose major interests are not so much military or political as psychological and moral. The central issue throughout is the nature of justice.
Michael Kohlhaas is, we learn in the suspiciously calm opening of this quite long tale, a successful man, and his success is largely due to his readiness to explore matters carefully before taking a decision. But once he has made up his mind, nothing can make him swerve from the course he has decided on. We first meet him when, in his 30th year, he is riding out from Brandenburg into Saxony with a string of young horses that he is intending to sell. He soon falls victim to petty tyranny: the new lord, Junker Wenzel von Tronka, is introducing a new tax on horses passing through and even insists on a permit. All this is news to Kohlhaas, unwelcome news at that, and he is distressed to have to leave behind a pair of fine black horses with a groom to look after them as pledges while he goes on to investigate the legitimacy of the new practices. What follows is almost Kafkaesque in its account of how a well-meaning man is defeated by the system. No one in an official position wants to listen to Kohlhaas, for von Tronka has friends and relations in high places, and meantime both the pair of horses and the groom are villainously ill-treated. Kohlhaas, a kindly family man who is devoted to his wife and children, is slow to take offense: he is careful to evaluate all the evidence about von Tronka, questioning the groom most carefully, and he repeatedly seeks redress through legal channels.
Finally his patience snaps, and then his vengeance is swift and terrible. Not content with razing von Tronka's castle to the ground, he pursues his fleeing persecutor from town to town. Kleist evokes all the horrors of the sixteenth-century Peasant Wars with the intensity of a man living through the Napoleonic campaigns that had wreaked such havoc in German-speaking lands. Gradually we become aware, however, of the warping of Kohlhaas's mind. His sense of outrageous injustice is strengthened when his dear wife dies after being struck by a guard when she goes to court to present a petition on her husband's behalf. After that there is no controlling him. In a grand apocalyptic vision he sees himself as an emissary of Saint Michael the Archangel charged with punishing with fire and the sword all who sided with his persecutor von Tronk. The population quails before him, and his ferocious determination enables him and quite small numbers of followers to defeat the considerable forces marshaled against him by the authorities, who are shown as effete and corrupt.
A meeting with Martin Luther provides a turning point, for Kohlhaas respects him as an authority on moral questions. The second half of the story reveals what happens to Kohlhaas when he gives himself up, trusting that the justice of his cause will be his salvation. Once again, it is all too obvious that Kohlhaas's opinion that society is founded on genuine moral principles is shown to be naive in the extreme. He rejects opportunities to back out of the situation: for instance, when a gypsy woman gives him a capsule containing information that the Elector of Saxony wishes to know about, he rejects the opportunity of ingratiating himself by handing it over. It is significant that, when he is executed, Kohlhaas is not broken on the wheel like his historical counterpart. Instead, he receives a more honorable death by beheading, and the Elector orders that his sons should be well treated. Thus ends Kleist's account of the life and death of a character from Germany in the sixteenth century, which we can see is also a portrait of a romantic hero who feels that he has no choice but to follow the dictates of his own inner convictions. That this should lead only to tragic despair and to doubt about all values is characteristic of Kleist's vision of the human predicament.