Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908
Michael Kohlhaas is described as “one of the most righteous and also one of the most terrible men of his time” (einer der rechtschaffensten zugleich und entsetzlichsten Menschen seiner Zeit ). A model citizen until he is thirty, he becomes a robber and murderer when his sense of justice...
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Michael Kohlhaas is described as “one of the most righteous and also one of the most terrible men of his time” (einer der rechtschaffensten zugleich und entsetzlichsten Menschen seiner Zeit). A model citizen until he is thirty, he becomes a robber and murderer when his sense of justice turns into a need for revenge. The novella’s complex plot deals with a quest for justice in a disordered world—an abiding concern of troubled young writer Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist was the son of a distinguished military family, raised in the Prussian tradition of loyalty, obedience, duty, and service, but, as a committed writer, he could not conform to this tradition. Living at a time of political turmoil when his country was invaded by Napoleon, unrecognized for his singular literary work and rejected by his family, he committed suicide at the age of thirty-four.
Kohlhaas seeks absolute justice, not realizing that justice is subject to the whims of those who administer it. In his effort to recover his two horses, he engages in violence that is out of proportion to the original offense. Though he is aware that the world is in a fragile state (der gebrechlichen Einrichtung der Welt), his need for revenge—a flaw in his character—moves him to take the law into his own hands. He acts as if the injustice committed against him entitles him to proclaim himself an avenging angel who will punish the unjust with fire and sword. Kohlhaas is constitutionally unable to assess the result of his actions; he acts without considering the consequences. There is a strong element of immaturity in his headlong rush to act out his compulsions. Indeed, the narrator suggests a strain of mental instability and even pathology in Kohlhaas’s decrees.
Kohlhaas’s encounter with Martin Luther demonstrates the pitfalls of the horse dealer’s black-and-white view. Luther informs him that the Saxon elector did not know of Tronka’s offense and Kohlhaas’s complaint because the relevant documents had been side-tracked by Tronka’s relatives at court. A similar situation occurs at the court of Brandenburg. Kohlhaas thus acts prematurely, but the handling of his case reveals corruption at both courts. The question then arises whether Kohlhaas is acting against a corrupt system and whether, given the corruption, his actions are excessive. Luther responds ambiguously: He condemns Kohlhaas’s violence but concedes that the horse dealer has a valid case. Ambiguous, too, is Luther’s confusion of safe conduct and amnesty in his appeal to the Saxon elector, as well as the Reformer’s warning that the elector should consider Kohlhaas’s armed band a danger to the state—an argument that undermines Kohlhaas’s suit.
Such inconsistencies occur not infrequently in Kleist’s writings. This story contains a few examples of explanations withheld for no stated reason, such as the reference to a conflict between Poland and Saxony. Some questions remain unresolved at the end of the book: Why does the elector of Brandenburg seek to try Kohlhaas under Brandenburg law, only to see him judged by the emperor? Why is the rejection of Kohlhaas’s petition to the elector of Brandenburg, which Lisbeth tried to deliver, brought to him at the very time of his wife’s funeral? Why is a letter to Kohlhaas from Luther’s envoy lost? Why are only two of his children mentioned by name when he actually has five children? These are psychic quirks in Kleist’s writing that show his awareness of life’s absurdities or perhaps a certain distractedness inherent in his precipitous narration. It seems at times as if the writer is too burdened or too contrary to be fully in control of the material. His writing is dramatic, lacking reflection, repose, and description.
It is characteristic of Kleist that he begins his tale with an opening paragraph of four fact-filled sentences that contain acharacterization of Kohlhaas and a foreshadowing of the plot. It has been suggested that Tronka and the elector of Saxony are unworthy adversaries of Kohlhaas’s campaign. Tronka enjoys carousing with his companions, and he does not have the courage to confront Kohlhaas or to control the actions of his subordinates. The elector of Saxony is a weak ruler who does not make decisions easily, does not choose advisers wisely, and finally leaves it to the emperor to deal with Kohlhaas. These antagonists are arbitrary and feckless but not evil, hardly appropriate targets of a crusader. Nor does the novella portray a case of class warfare: Kohlhaas is conducting a personal vendetta, not an attempt to change the system. The social turmoil in the story reflects the upheaval in Germany at the height of the Reformation.
Just before his execution, Kohlhaas has a chance to save his life, but he prefers to die rather than help the Saxon elector. He disregards the advice of the gypsy, an apparition of his late wife, to reveal the secret paper’s message to the elector, and he dies happy to have harmed the elector. Kohlhaas’s glee at frustrating the elector contrasts sharply with his death sentence. The story ends with a kind of poetic justice: Kohlhaas has to die for his violent acts, but his two sons are knighted and his descendants live on, while the Saxon elector and his dynasty fade away. Michael Kohlhaas is a striking account of what can happen when bad means are used toward a good end.