The tragedy of Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist’s brief life was determined by the extremely limited role of the minor aristocracy in eighteenth and nineteenth century Prussia. Originally semi-independent rulers in a feudal sense, the landed aristocracy moved up into a small court nobility supported by investments—or down, as with Kleist’s family, into a military caste. A Junker was not permitted to practice law or medicine, to engage in trade, or to join the middle class in any manner. Kleist, sickened with military brutality, resigned his commission after seven lost years. Kleist wrote that he had been constantly troubled by the inevitable conflict between his duty as an officer and his duty as a human being. The soldiers seemed little more than slaves to Kleist, the famed Prussian discipline a living monument to tyranny. Giving up a military career was synonymous with giving up membership in the Junker class, at least for the landless Kleist. Therefore, when at the age of twenty-two he became a student of government and philosophy at Frankfurt an der Oder, he began writing his name without the aristocratic “von.” In giving up his military career, Kleist was giving up his heritage, his pride, his class, his future security, and even a portion of his name.
The career for which Kleist was preparing himself during his student years was that of a government trade administrator. The closing of two doors ended Kleist’s hopes for such a career....
(The entire section is 489 words.)