Michael Kohlhaas, a horse dealer from Brandenburg, is on his way to sell some of his fine horses when he is stopped at Tronka castle in the neighboring state of Saxony. He is asked to pay a toll and show a pass before proceeding—a requirement he has not had to satisfy on seventeen previous trips. Leaving his groom Herse and two horses as security, Kohlhaas goes to Dresden, capital of Saxony, where he is given a pass, though no pass is required. He returns to the castle to find his horses emaciated, and he learns that his groom has been beaten and chased away. Determined to find justice for himself and other travelers, he rides home to question his groom; if the groom was at fault, he is prepared to forfeit the horses.
Kohlhaas finds that Herse has been badly injured and his horses were mistreated. He returns to Dresden to file suit against the castle owner, Wenzel von Tronka, asking that the knight be punished, that the horses be restored to health, and that he be compensated for damages done to him and his groom. The suit is dismissed because two relatives of Tronka have influence at court. Kohlhaas is advised to negotiate with Tronka for return of the horses without seeking further legal action.
Kohlhaas decides to sell his properties as he plans his next course of action. He tells his anxious wife Lisbeth that he will present his complaint to the Saxon ruler in person, but he accepts her offer to hand his petition to the elector of Brandenburg, his sovereign. Lisbeth is badly injured by an aggressive guard and dies shortly thereafter. Before she dies, she shows Kohlhaas a passage in the Bible urging forgiveness for one’s enemies. At her funeral, he receives the elector’s reply to his petition: He is to pick up his horses at Tronka castle and pursue the matter no further; otherwise, he risks a jail sentence.
Planning his revenge, Kohlhaas issues a decree ordering Tronka to return the horses and fatten them in Kohlhaas’s own stables. When his order is not obeyed, Kohlhaas sends his children away, arms seven grooms, and leaves for Tronka castle. He sets the castle on fire and kills a relative of the knight, as well as the castle warden, steward, and their families, but Tronka escapes.
Kohlhaas arms additional men and is about to attack a convent where Tronka is thought to be hiding when a mighty lightning stroke stays his hand. Told that Tronka is in Wittenberg, Kohlhaas...
(The entire section is 991 words.)