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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381

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...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991

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 sets out for that city with ten men. Calling himself “a free man of the Empire and the world who was subject only to God,” he sets Wittenberg on fire on the evening before Pentecost—and twice more thereafter. With a band of 109 men, Kohlhaas defeats the Saxon forces and sets fire to the city of Leipzig. Claiming to be an emissary of the Archangel Michael sent to punish the world’s deceit, Kohlhaas calls on the people to create a better order in the name of his provisional world government.

At this point, Martin Luther, the Reformer, addresses a stern appeal to Kohlhaas. Writing in Wittenberg, Luther calls Kohlhaas a godless sinner who has not tried hard enough to find justice, a robber and murderer who has broken into a peaceful community like a wolf. He says that only God can judge a ruler whose civil servants suppress lawsuits behind his back. Kohlhaas, who admires Luther greatly, goes to see him and offers to present his complaint in Dresden if given safe conduct. Because Kohlhaas refuses to forgive Tronka, as Luther suggests, the Reformer will not give him communion but agrees to ask the elector of Saxony for safe conduct. Criticizing the elector’s staff for not acting on Kohlhaas’s complaint, Luther urges the elector to grant amnesty to Kohlhaas to press his case. The elector grants safe conduct to Kohlhaas on the condition that he disarm in three days. Kohlhaas disarms his men, returns his booty and goes to Dresden to plead his case.

Accompanied by three guards and a large crowd, Kohlhaas appears at court, and Tronka is summoned to Dresden to answer Kohlhaas’s suit. The case is complicated by a member of Kohlhaas’s band, Johannes Nagelschmidt, who is marauding in Saxony with his own band of outlaws. Kohlhaas condemns Nagelschmidt’s violence but agrees to lead his band temporarily while asking Nagelschmidt to help him escape from Dresden, where Kohlhaas is under guard. Kohlhaas plans to go overseas to escape from his legal entanglements, but when his letters to Nagelschmidt are intercepted Kohlhaas is arrested and sentenced to be drawn and quartered.

The elector of Brandenburg has Kohlhaas extradited from Saxony so he can be tried under Brandenburg law. The elector of Saxony asks the emperor in Vienna, who is not bound by Kohlhaas’s amnesty, to prosecute him in Berlin for his breach of the peace. Kohlhaas wears a capsule containing a sealed paper given to him by a gypsy woman who resembled his late wife. The paper contains vital information about the elector of Saxony, but Kohlhaas refuses to give it up, even though it might save his life. The gypsy woman prophesies a long reign for the elector of Brandenburg but not for the Saxon elector.

In Berlin, Kohlhaas is charged with breach of the peace. After being informed that he will get full satisfaction from Tronka, Kohlhaas is sentenced to death for his crimes. An emissary of Luther administers communion to him, and his two sons are knighted. Before he is executed, two well-fed horses are returned to him, and Herse’s medical expenses are paid in full. Mounting the scaffold before a large public crowd, Kohlhaas swallows the sealed paper in view of the Saxon elector, who returns home a broken man. After his death, descendants of Kohlhaas continue to be active.

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