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Michael Kohlhaas

Heinrich von Kleist

Michael Kohlhaas

Heinrich von Kleist

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Michael Kohlhaas Summary

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Michael Kohlhaas is a German novella written by Heinrich von Kleist. It’s based on the story of Hans Kohlhase, which dates from the sixteenth century. Kleist published parts of the text in his literary journal Phöbus in 1808. The full work appeared in his 1810 book Erzahlungen, meaning novellas.

The historical basis of the story concerns Hans Kohlhase, a merchant who lived on the Spree, which is now part of Berlin. In the fall of 1532, he began a journey to the Leipzig Trade Fair in the nearby Electorate of Saxony. On his way, two of his horses were taken by the order of the Junker von Zaschwitz under the guise of being a fee for entering Saxony. Kohlhase unsuccessfully sought justice in the Saxon courts. In his anger, he proclaimed a public challenge in 1534 and burned down houses in Wittenberg. Martin Luther sent a letter to Kohlhase, but even that did not stop him. The men he amassed continued to inflict damage in the region. He was finally captured and put on trial in 1540, and was publicly tortured on a breaking wheel in Berlin.

In the novella, Brandenburg horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas leads a team of horses toward Saxony. An official representing nobleman Junker Wenzel von Tronka stops him, saying that he does not have the necessary papers to pass through. The nobleman takes two of Kohlhaas’s horses as collateral.



When he arrives in Dresden, the capital of Saxon, Kohlhaas finds that the two horses he was charged for collateral were a random request, and he demands that they be returned to him. When he arrives at Junker Tronka’s castle, Kohlhaas discovers that his horses have been mistreated and are being used to work the fields. He also learns that his hired hand, who uncovered the horses’ conditions, has been beaten.

Kohlhaas sues the Junker for the cost of medical treatment for the hired man and rehabilitation for his horses. A year goes by and he learns that the lawsuit was rejected due to the political influence of the Junker’s relatives. Kohlhaas continues to demand his rights. He uses some political influence but remains unsuccessful. His wife, while trying to bring a petition to the Elector of Saxony, is struck by a guard and eventually dies from the injuries she sustains.

The government is an old boys’ network that prevents Kohlhaas from making any progress by pursuing legal routes to justice. He therefore turns to criminal activity, starting something of a private war. Along with seven other men, he destroys the Junker’s castle and kills the servants who remain there. The Junker runs to Wittenberg. Kohlhaas next frees his horses but leaves them in the castle in order to lead his army, which is essentially a riotous mob, to Wittenberg in search of the Junker.



Even though his army has grown to four hundred men, the attack on Wittenberg is unsuccessful and Kohlhaas is not able to capture the Junker. Martin Luther personally steps into the situation and arranges amnesty. The Elector of Saxony approves the suit against the Squire, but the Junker is still able to call on his family members to intervene, and Kohlhaas is imprisoned in a dungeon in Brandenburg.

Kohlhaas is eventually released through the Elector of Brandenburg’s efforts. The Saxony, however, has told the Kaiser in Vienna that the families in power in Berlin consider the threat to the aristocracy’s authority something that must be dealt with very seriously. The Elector of Brandenburg attempts to save Kohlhaas’s life, but despite the Elector’s efforts, Kahlhaas is sentenced to death.

It is later discovered that Kohlhaas has in his possession papers containing important information about the House of Saxony. As he is being taken to be executed, Kohlhaas sees that the Elector of Saxony is disguised among those in the crowd. He learns from his lawyer that his suit against the Junker has turned out in his favor, and he receives payments for the injuries to his hired man and is led to his horses, which are now in healthy condition.



Now that he has found justice, Kohlhaas agrees to his execution. Just before it is about to take place, he opens an amulet that hangs from his neck and presents the papers about the House of Saxony, which he then swallows. This upsets the Elector so much that he faints, and Kohlhaas is beheaded.

Michael Kohlhaas has had a long-lasting influence. In his lifetime, for example, Franz Kafka made only two public appearances, one of which he used to read passages from Michael Kohlhaas. E. L. Doctorow used plot elements from the novella in his own book, Ragtime. J. M. Coetzee’s novel Life & Times of Michael K was also influenced by Kleist’s book.
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