Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442
Kleist's novella is a Romantic transformation of a true incident that took place in the German states in the 1500s. Its themes involve class conflict, the issue of revenge and whether or not it's justifiable, and the individual against the larger forces of society.
In the story, Kohlhaas, a horse dealer, is detained at a nobleman's castle at the frontier between Brandenburg and Saxony. (At that time, Germany was made up of individual principalities only loosely confederated within the Holy Roman Empire.) Kohlhaas is made to pay a toll and instructed to obtain a passport from the Saxony officials while he leaves two of his horses as security at the castle, called Tronka. He later finds out that the requirement for a passport was bogus. When he returns to Tronka he finds that his horses have been abused and starved, and that the stable-lad he had left there in charge of the horses has been beaten and driven off the property. Kohlhaas first seeks to use the legal system to redress these crimes, but when it does not work in his favor, he realizes his only option is private revenge. He raises a mob to help him, burns down the Tronka castle, and kills the servants. In the end of the story, Kohlhaas is put to death, in spite of the efforts of several influential figures in government to exonerate him.
Though the actual incident on which Kleist based the story took place nearly 300 years earlier, he transforms it into a Romantic-themed tale about the individual's assertion of will in the face of a hostile outside world. The injustice of a system in which there is a rigid class hierarchy is central to the story as well. Kleist came of age during the French Revolution. The ideals of the Enlightenment penetrated the thoughts of nearly all who worked in the arts during this period. In 1810, when Kleist's novella was published, Germany was still made up of individual autocratic princedoms which, moreover, had been intimidated into essentially becoming client states of Napoleonic France. This situation was resented by even those Germans who had initially admired Napoleon and had believed he was spreading the ideals of the Revolution.
Even within this overall theme of the individual asserting himself against the injustice of the established order, the question remains as to the morality of Kohlhaas's actions. Kohlhaas, in Kleist's treatment, becomes a figure like Goethe's Faust or Byron's Manfred, creating his own morality in his effort to overstep the limitations imposed upon man. This final theme of a will to transcend those conventional boundaries of action is perhaps the most significant theme of Kleist's story.