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Michael Kohlhaas

By: Heinrich von Kleist

Michael Kohlhaas is a novella by the German author Heinrich von Kleist, based on a 16th-century story of Hans Kohlhase. Kleist published fragments of the work in volume 6 of his literary journal Phöbus in June 1808. The complete work was published in the first volume of Kleist's Erzählungen (novellas) in 1810. Both the theme (a fanatical quest for justice) and the style (existentialist detachment posing as a chronicle) are surprisingly modern. They resonated with other authors more than a century after they were written.

The Brandenburg horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas is leading a team of horses in the direction of Saxony when an official of the nobleman Junker Wenzel von Tronka detains him, claiming that he does not have proper transit papers. The official demands that Kohlhaas leave two horses as collateral.


In Dresden (the Saxon capital) Kohlhaas discovers that this collateral was totally arbitrary, and proceeds to demand return of his horses. When he arrives at the castle of Junker Tronka he discovers that the horses have been suffering from working in the fields and his hired man, who protested against the mistreatment of the horses, has been beaten.


Kohlhaas sues the Junker for the cost of medical treatment of his hired man and for rehabilitation of his horses. After one year he finds that the suit was turned down through political influence of the Junker's relatives. Kohlhaas persists in demanding his rights. In spite of support of a friendly politician and personal engagement of his wife (who is struck down by a guard in her attempt to deliver a petition to the Elector of Saxony and later dies of her injuries), he remains unsuccessful.


Since the administrative "old boys' club" prevents any progress through legal channels, Kohlhaas resorts to criminal means. He begins a private war. Together with seven men he destroys the castle of the Junker, who in the meantime has fled to Wittenberg, and slaughters the remaining servants (including an infant). Kohlhaas frees his horses, but then ditches them in the castle in order to lead his growing "army" (really a mob) to Wittenberg, demanding the Junker. In spite of numerous attacks of his 400-man army on Wittenberg he fails to secure the Junker.


Through personal intervention of Martin Luther an amnesty is arranged, whereby the Elector of Saxony approves the suit against the Squire. But the Junker again activates his influential family and Kohlhaas is thrown into a dungeon in Brandenburg.


The Elector of Brandenburg manages to have Kohlhaas released, but since in the meantime Saxony has informed the Kaiser in Vienna, the ruling families in Berlin feel this threat to the authority of the aristocracy must be handled with severity. In spite of surprising efforts of the Elector of Brandenburg to save Kohlhaas, he is sentenced to death. Later it turns out that Kohlhaas has on his person papers that contain important information about the House of Saxony.


As Kohlhaas is led to execution, he sees in the crowd the disguised Elector of Saxony. Through his lawyer, he is informed that his suit against the Junker has been successful, and is presented with compensation for the injuries of his hired man and shown the horses, now well-fed and healthy. Pleased that justice has been served, he submits willingly to the execution. However, shortly before being beheaded, he opens the amulet on his neck containing the papers regarding the House of Saxony and swallows them. The Elector of Saxony is so distressed by this act that he faints, and Kohlhaas is beheaded shortly thereafter.


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Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was a German poet, dramatist, novelist, short story writer and journalist. His best known works are the theatre plays Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, The Broken Jug,...

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