Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Justice, West of the Elbe...

Frederic Remington: "The Autumn of the Cowboy"

"Michael Kohlhaas" by Heinrich von Kleist

…he called himself “the viceregent of the Archangel Michael”

If Man’s Justice fails and Divine providence is blatantly absent, can one take Justice into one own hands? And if one does, what are the consequences? These are the themes Heinrich von Kleist develops in this old story, this “alten chronik”, recounting the dramatic destiny of Michael Kohlhaas.

Hans Kohlhaas is a historical figure. Kleist changed his first name into the one of the Archangel for dramatic effect. Kohlhaas was a sixteenth century horse-dealer who for a brief moment in history set fire to the Duchy of Saxony. Who could suspect that this hardworking man with a God-fearing and Family – loving reputation, would turn into the avenging Angel of Death?

Kleist presents his hero at once, already on the first page, with two paradoxes:

He was[…] the most honest, while at the same time he was one of the most terrible persons of his period.


The feeling of justice made him a robber and a murderer.

What had happened? On his way to a yearly trade fair, with some fine horses to sell, Kohlhaas had to cross the land of the Aristocratic family Von Tronka. He is stopped by a barrier across the road and a guard who prohibits him to travel further. First Kohlhaas is requested to pay a tribute and show some papers for passing. The horse-dealer is a bit surprised that he has not been warned of this but does not make too much of it. He agrees two leave two nice black horses as collateral at the castle of the local Lord, Wenzel von Tronka. Kohlhaas intends to proceed to the market, sell his horses, get the necessary papers and then collect the two black stallions on his way back. He leaves a servant behind with some money to take care of the horses.

When Koolhaas returns to the Von Tronka castle, he finds his horses and his man-servant in a dire state. The horses have been badly abused by Von Tronka’s men. They have badly abused them by using them to plough a field.

Kohlhaas, a man who strongly believes in justice, understandably does not accept this situation. He demands compensation through the local courts of Justice for the damage done to his animals and for his servant who has been badly manhandled when he wanted to protect the horses. Unfortunately the lawyers and the influential people in the area are all friends or in some way related to the von Tronka family. Most of them are genuinely disgusted by what has been done to the horses but no one intervenes and the Junker Wenzel von Tronka remains unpunished. Kohlhaas mood understandably darkens when  he is time and again obstructed in his actions to recuperate his due. His wife gets worried by his obsession and proposes to ask Justice from the Prince of Saxony himself. As a woman she thinks she can get closer to this well-guarded man than her husband would. Don’t forget that we are still in feudal times and that the aristocrats cannot be bothered by normal people. But drama happens. At the moment that the Prince walks by, Kohlhaas’ wife surges forward but is caught by the Prince bodyguards and pushed back with the back of a lance into the crowd. While she is wounded in the chest by this brutal act, she still makes it back to her husband but dies in his arms.

Kohlhaas decides on the spot, to get retribution in a different way. He arms his servants, rides to the Von Tronka castle, takes it by surprise, sets fire to its buildings and slaughters everybody who crosses his path. He fails however to get Von Tronka, who in the commotion succeeds to flee to the neighboring town.

But Kohlhass keeps following him, burning down house after house. His army of renegades grows with new mercenaries paying themselves with the loot and living from the land. They soon turn the fertile farming communities into a wasteland.

By now the feudal establishment has taken notice and sits up. They arm themselves, hunt Kohlhaas but fail to corner and catch him. As the common people who have heard the story of the injustice start to grumble, Von Tronka and his allies change their strategy.

They ask the famous Martin Luther to intervene and to demand a cease-fire. He does, but has not been told the true story and unknowingly lures Kohlhaas into a situation of which he cannot escape.


The writer of this captivating story, Heinrich von Kleist, a key figure of the German Romantic literary tradition, was a paradox himself. At the age of twenty-one, he wrote a “Life plan”, a Lebensplan, which was supposed to give him a sense of security, confidence and happiness but unexplainably and ironically Kleist took a, non planned, early exit with his double suicide comitted with his lover Henriette Vögel. He died on the shore of the lake Wannsee (Wahnsinn?) near Potsdam on 21 November 1811. He had just turned 34.
Still, Von Kleist has left us many works and he is an author worth giving attention to. There is his famous “Prince of Homburg”, “The broken Jug” and “The Marquise of O”, but I especially love him for his short but brilliant philosophical essay: “On the theater of Marionette”.I have copied it in its entirety in my blog, for it is really a little gem of a text.

There hangs some kind of “Western atmosphere” around the story. Some obvious ingredients are easily spotted: The lonely guy looking for compensation, the shocked reaction about the cruelty done to the horses and the wild riders trying to hunt down the bad but powerful Von Tronka who is the scion of an evil establishment.  The story of Kohlhaas was turned into a “cowboy” movie in 1999, titled “The Jack Bull”, directed by John Badham and starring John Cussack as Kohlhaas.

Kleist touches deeper meanings too. Obviously the theme of Justice but there is more. By turning the individual Kohlhaas into the Archangel Michael and Martin Luther into a mediator in the Power struggle between the rising class of Burghers and the members of a crumbling Feudality, Kleist makes statements about the society around him. Himself a Junker, an officer educated in the Prussian military tradition, it seems that he left the Army because he had problems with the hierarchy trampling the rights of the individual.

Maybe the “old story”, this “alten chronik”, should even be read ironically, for at least in Von Kleist time, during the reactionary times that followed the French revolution, things had not changed that much.