Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella, Michael Kohlhaas, is one of the most important in German literature, building a bridge between the classic and modern traditions. Quite by chance it shares an uncanny thematic link with Boell’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, which I reviewed earlier this week.
The plot is based on the true story of the C16th merchant, Hans Kohlhase, who lived in Cölln on the Spree (now incorporated in Berlin) in the March of Brandenburg. In October 1532 he set out on a trip to the Leipzig trade fair in the neighboring Electorate of Saxony. On the way two of his horses were seized, at the command of the Junker von Zaschwitz, as a supposed fee for passage through Saxony. Kohlhase sought justice in the courts of Saxony but failed to obtain it. Outraged, he issued a public challenge in 1534 and burned down houses in Wittenberg. Even a letter of admonition from Martin Luther could not dissuade him, and Kohlhase and the band he collected committed further acts of terror. In 1540 he was finally captured and tried, and was publicly broken on the wheel in Berlin on 22 March 1540.
Fundamentally the outline remains the same, details changing slightly as Kleist uses the story to express the unexpressable. Prussia in his day was a place of political discontent with the Elector of Saxony despised for his allegiance to Napoleon. The story of Michael Kohlhaas, his search for personal redress, his fight against the corrupt Saxon legal system, all allowed Kleist to villify the enemy and champion the issues of his own times without attracting accusations of political agitation. Putting aside the inevitable anachronisms that arise from this (such as the notion of individual rights), the novella makes for absorbing action-packed reading as Kohlhaas turns from fine law-abiding citizen to fire-wielding brigand. Nevertheless he retains common support and wins himself some influential champions. On the verge of a breakthrough, he is betrayed by the actions of a former supporter and from this point, it becomes somewhat confusing following the machinations of his enemies and the countermachinations of his supporters. The final scene depicts the ultimate paradox, demonstrating how Kohlhaas secures both defeat and victory at the same moment.
Important in terms of the development of Germanic literature, this novella continues to exert its influence on modern literature, most notably E L Doctorow’s modern classic Ragtime, with its direct homage to Kleist in the form of Coalhouse Walker.