Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The novel Michael Kohlhaas is set in the sixteenth century, but Heinrich von Kleist wrote it almost three hundred years later. The author elaborates on actual events to raise questions of justice and political intrigue that he thought remained relevant to German society in his own time. The eponymous protagonist goes on a hero’s journey—though some would see him as an anti-hero—involving his resistance to oppression. Traveling between the kingdoms of which modern Germany was then composed, Kohlhaas must pay numerous tolls and fulfill bureaucratic requirements for documents. Despite his compliance, his groom is injured and his horses are badly mistreated on one occasion, and he seeks justice for this offense.
Using the courts to sue a local aristocrat, Wenzel von Tronka, Kohlhaas is stymied because corruption and nepotism in the legal system favor von Tronka. As he changes his plan to seek recourse at a higher level of government, his wife, Lisbeth, is injured; she urges him to take a forgiving attitude. The authorities not only reject his plea but threaten him with jail if he pursues his complaints.
Outraged by his treatment, Kohlhaas hatches a plot against von Tronka. He goes to his castle and sets it on fire, killing a number of people, including children, but von Tronka himself escapes. Kohlhaas continues to amass men on his side, and pursues his oppressor to another city, Wittenberg, where he sets more fires. He and his men continue to Leipzig and try to burn it down.
At this point, Michael Kohlhaas invokes the Archangel Michael and declares himself God’s emissary in seeking justice for all, not just himself. Martin Luther, in Wittenberg, reaches out to him but also condemns his sacrilegious actions. He manages to broker a temporary, uneasy peace so that Kohlhaas can face von Tronka in court. Although this is arranged, one follower continues marauding through the countryside. When Kohlhaas supports him, he is apprehended and scheduled to be tried for these crimes. As a peaceful solution to his original complaint is achieved, von Tronka is found guilty; nevertheless, Kohlhaas is found guilty of the more serious, violent crimes. Although Kohlhaas possess secret political information that might save him, he refrains from revealing it and is hanged the same day his horses are returned.