Michael Kohlhaas

[This page by Martin Swales]

Michael Kohlhaas (fragment published 1808, first published 1810)

Michael Kohlhaas is the story of an upright man who cannot endure illegality because for him the integrity of the world and the dignity of his place within it are compromised if laws are flouted. He undertakes a journey with two horses that are wrongfully impounded by Junker Wenzel von Tronka. He is obliged to leave the two horses behind in the care of his servant Herse. When he returns, it is to discover that both the servant and the horses have been scandalously mistreated. From that point on Kohlhaas commits himself entirely to the quest for justice. His wife takes a petition to Berlin on his behalf, but, in her eagerness to press through the crowd she offends one of the guards who pushes her back with his lance. She returns home, gravely wounded and dies. Kohlhaas attacks the castle of the Junker and goes on brutally to sack a number of towns in order to find the Junker – but without success. He is discredited because his campaign is linked with the criminality of Nagelschmidt and his outlaws. When the two horses are discovered at a knacker’s yard, the disproportion between the obsessive fury of Kohlhaas’s campaign for justice and its immediate cause becomes clear. Finally, in part as the result of an intervention by Martin Luther, Kohlhaas is granted an amnesty, and his case is heard. He accepts the judgment that he must be executed for the destruction he has caused, but his complaint against the Junker is fully upheld, and the two horses, restored to their previous perfect condition, are returned to him. One of his final acts involves revenge; a gypsy woman has given him a capsule containing a roll of paper which predicts the future destiny of the Elector of Saxony, one of Kohlhaas’s chief adversaries. The Elector hopes to acquire the piece of paper, but Kohlhaas defiantly swallows it before going to his death.

Michael Kohlhaas is an exhausting reading experience. It is subtitled ‘aus einer alten Chronik’; ‘from an old chronicle’, but its chief interest is not historical. The story opens with an interpretative introduction, telling us that Kohlhaas is ‘einer der rechtschaffensten und zugleich entsetzlichsten Menschen seiner Zeit’; ‘one of the most righteous and at the same time most terrible men of his time’. The adjectives are both superlatives indicating that the story to come is one of excess; the protagonist’s need for justice is a virtue, but it is taken to excess, and, paradoxically, the righteous man becomes a criminal. The opening sounds a shade sententious; it is almost as though the narrator turns to old chronicle material for its didactic force. Towards the end of the story the narrator refers to uncertainties that result from discrepancies between the various chronicle accounts. And there is the incident of the gypsy’s prophecy which has the appeal with its mixture of folk superstition and magic. Yet essentially this is not a chronicle. It is a piece of strenuous narration that brings us close to the existential struggle at its heart. Kohlhaas may be a horse dealer by trade; more importantly, however, he is a philosopher in the Kleistian mode. Even before the incident with the horses occurs he is acquainted with ‘der allgemeinen Not der Welt’; ‘the general problems of the world’. We learn of his ‘Rechtsgefühl, das einer Goldwaage glich’; ‘his sense of justice, which was like a bullion balance’. He is not a man who is given to intemperate judgments because he heeds his ‘richtiges, mit der gebrechlichen Einrichtung der Welt bekanntes Gefühl’; ‘right feeling, which was familiar with the fragile construction of the world’. But, once he is sure of his ground, he is implacable in his determination to set the world to rights; what is at stake for him is so much more than the restitution of stolen property. The forces ranged against his quest are two-fold; one is the sheer complexity of the law and its institutions; the other is the teemingly malignant randomness of worldly experience. Both agencies are invoked in sentences of grammatical complexity and weightiness. It is almost as though the language were trying to contain the unruly chaos of the world without fragmenting. Here is an example of the law in Kafkaesque mode:

Der Offiziant versicherte ihn, daß ihm die Befehle des Schloßhauptmanns, Freiherrn von Wenk, der in diesem Augenblick Chef der Polizei sei, ihm die unausgesetzte Beschützung seiner Person zur Pflicht machen; und bat ihn, falls er sich die Begleitung nicht gefallen lassen wolle, selbst auf das Gubernium zu gehen, um den Irrtum, der dabei obwalten müsse, zu berichtigen.


The official assured him that the orders given to him by the commander of the castle, Baron von Wenk, who at this moment was chief of police, had made his duty the constant protection of his person; and asked him, in the case that he did want to put up with this escort, to go to the governor’s house in order to report the error that must be prevailing there.

The following extract gives an example of Kleist’s ability to capture the perverse simultaneity of events:

Es traf sich, daß Kohlhaas eben, durch einen Gerichtsboten herbeigerufen, in dem Gemach des Großkanzlers gewisser, die Deposition in Lützen betreffenden Erläuterungen wegen, die man von ihm bedurfte, gegenwärtig war, als der Freiherr, in der eben erwähnten Absicht, zu ihm ins Zimmer trat.


It happened that Kohlhaas, at that moment, had been summoned by a bailiff and was present in the grand chancellor’s chamber because of certain clarifications relating to the deposition in Lützen which were required of him, just as the baron, with the aforementioned intention, entered the room.

Time and again, the German language, in Kleist’s hands, embodies the stresses and strains of the human quest for clarity and order in a faulty world. Our readerly need to unravel the sentences is cognate with the protagonist’s quest to resolve a chaotic world into sense.

Further Reading

Seán Allan, ‘“Der Herr aber, dessen Leib du begehrst, vergab seinem Feind”: The Problem of Revenge in Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas’, Modern Language Review 92:3 (1997), 630-42

Matthew Bell, ‘Kleist and Melancholy’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 78:1-2 (2009), 11-21

Benjamin Bennett, The Dark Side of Literacy: Literature and Learning Not to Read (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 301-08

Laura Bradley, ‘The Politics of Cultural Impact: Michael Kohlhaas in East Berlin’, in Cultural Impact in the German Context: Studies in Transmission, Reception and Influence, ed. by Rebecca Braun and Lyn Marven (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), pp. 243-59

Jeffrey Champlin, ‘Reading Terrorism in Kleist: The Violence and Mandates of Michael Kohlhaas’, German Quarterly 85:4 (2012), 439-54

Christiane Frey, ‘The Excess of Law and Rhetoric in Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas’, Phrasis (2006), vol. 1 (Belgium: University of Ghent, 2006)

Clayton Koelb, ‘Incorporating the Text: Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas’, PMLA 105:5 (1990), 1089-1107

Elisabeth Krimmer, ‘Between Terror and Transcendence: A Reading of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas’, German Life and Letters 64:3 (2011), 405-20

Margarete Landwehr, ‘The Mysterious Gypsy in Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas”: The Disintegration of Legal and Linguistic Boundaries’, Monatshefte 84:4 (1992), 431-46

R. S. Lucas, ‘Studies in Kleist I. Michael Kohlhaas’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 44 (1970), 120-45

Tim Mehigan, Heinrich von Kleist: Writing After Kant (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2011), Chapters 4 and 8 on ‘Michael Kohlhaas’

Zachary Sng, ‘The Poetics of the Middle in Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas”’, The Germanic Review 85:3 (2010), 171-88

Web Link in German


Michael Kohlhaas German audio book - free to download