Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
Heinrich von Kleist based his tale on a factual account, and his manner of presentation suggests that he wants the reader to see it as nonfiction. Acknowledging the complexity of Michael Kohlhaas’ character, he encourages us to consider his “sense of justice” in evaluating his criminal actions.
The world would have every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue—his sense of justice, which made of him a robber and a murderer.
The problems began when Kohlhaas, a horse trader, was moving a group of horses to another town to sell. He learned that a new squire had replaced the old one who had died, and that new regulations were in place. Because he did not have a passport, he offered to get it at the next city, but at the castle he had to leave a security in the form of some horses. After he obtained his passport and returned for his horses, however, all was not well. He found his once “glossy, well-fed blacks” were now bone thin, with matted hair; they had apparently been starved and worked as draft-horses.
No one in the castle will admit responsibility, and Kohlhaas learns, after questioning his groom, who was also injured, of the deplorable conditions to which they had all been subjected. He decides to take legal action. Aided by an attorney, who drew up a petition, the aggrieved horse-dealer filed a claim based on
the wrong which the Squire Wenzel von Tronka had done both to him, and his servant Herse, [Kohlhaas] claimed that he should be punished according to law, that his horses should be restored to their former condition, and that compensation should be awarded for the wrong which he and his servant had suffered.
His claim is not successful, however, as the squire has friends and relations in the court. Kohlhaas takes matters into his own hands and gathers some men to accompany him to the squire’s castle. After setting the outbuildings on fire, he bursts into the castle itself. Although the squire fled, the horse-dealer and his men kill many people, including numerous children, before chasing after the missing squire. His men loot the castle and throw the dead bodies out the windows onto the fire below.
Things go from bad to worse after he leaves. Kohlhaas enlists the aid of many followers to find the squire and wreak revenge on him. They begin to attack his other properties, as well as cities under the jurisdiction of anyone associated with him. Among those cities is Wittenberg, where he was convinced the squire was being kept safe. Enlisting further support, he evaded all efforts at capture, and set fire to various parts of the city. An obsessive fever caught hold of Kohlhaas, and he declared his motivation from angelic intervention.
In the mandate which he distributed on this occasion he called himself, “Vicegerent of Michael the Archangel who had come to avenge, with fire and sword, the villany into which the whole world had fallen, on all who had taken the squire’s part in this struggle.” [H]e called upon the people to join him, and bring about a better order of things.