Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Any analysis of this story must take into account the historical context in which it was written, the trends in literature and the arts generally at the time, and even the biography of its author, Heinrich Kleist.
Though critics have often classified him as separate from the Romantic movement, I believe that, especially in Michael Kohlhaas, Kleist's approach is a typically Romantic one. In the story, we see an individual asserting his will against the larger forces of authoritarianism and conformity that seek to victimize him. Kohlhaas is an ordinary man who is dealt with unfairly by a nobleman and the nobleman's retinue. Instead of backing down and accepting his place, Kohlhaas fights back, first seeking legal recourse and, when this doesn't succeed, using extra-judicial means, including burning down the man's castle. A small situation escalates into a huge one, but the principle behind it is the seeking of justice for the individual.
At the time Kleist wrote the story, Germany—just as it had been 300 years earlier during the time of the historical Kohlhaas—was made up of individual principalities under authoritarian leaders. Moreover, after Napoleon's invasion, these countries had essentially become client states of the French. France itself had, under Bonaparte, changed from a state representing Enlightenment ideals to a dictatorship. The political situation as a whole was resented by progressive people of the time, especially those in the arts, in Germany and throughout Europe. Kleist's novella uses and expands the actual Kohlhaas incident in the sixteenth century as a parable of the injustice not only of contemporary government, but of the class system by which nearly all of mankind up to that time was governed. Kohlhaas becomes a Romantic hero, an individual striving to become more than a man restricted by the usual limitations imposed upon all of us.
To some extent, Kleist created a mirror of his own life in his fiction. He was something of a misfit, a man who suffered from chronic illnesses and depression. He ended his life in a suicide pact with a terminally ill friend in 1811, the year after Michael Kohlhaas was published. One can draw a parallel between Kleist's own self-destructive nature and that of Kohlhaas, but the more significant point is that Kohlhaas is another version of the nineteenth-century rebel—like Byron's Don Juan and Manfred, Emily Brontë's Heathcliff, and many others—who takes his own course as an assertion of will in defiance of injustice and the grip of conformity.