Michael Kohlhaas

I read the novel Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist because it was the latest selection of the reading group I have been in for a number of years. (I posted about the benefits of being in a book discussion group for a writer in this post.)

This novel, published nearly 200 years ago, is based on an actual historical event from several hundred years before then. Michael Kohlhaas is an honest horse trader living in what would one day be called Germany. On his way to a fair to sell some of his horses, he is blocked by a local lord and told he must pay a toll to pass through the lord’s lands. Not having the money for the toll, Kohlhaas leaves two of his horses with the lord as surety. Later Kohlhaas learns there was no toll and that he’d been cheated. He returns for his horses to find they have been mistreated and overworked. Kohlhaas pursues various legal channels to redress his grievances but finds his case blocked in each instance by what was effectively the old boy network of the time. When his wife attempts to intercede as well, she is wounded and eventually dies. Finding no satisfaction through legal means, Kohlhaas mounts an army of many hundreds of men (an indication that such mistreatment is commonplace if so many would willingly violate the law in his support) and begins a campaign of terror. But his demands are simple. He merely wants his two horses restored to their original vigor and returned to him.

The entrenched authorities recognize the threat Kohlhaas’s uprising brings and, through the good (or not-so-good) offices of Martin Luther himself, begin negotiations with him to put down his rebellion and restore order (as well as save face for themselves). Double cross and deceipt are the true law here, and Kohlhaas really has no hope to save himself. In the end, though, he does make a sort of un-holy communion that suggests a new order is coming and the entrenched interests can’t know when it will happen.

The novel raises a great many profound issues, not the least of which is whether one is justified to resort to violence in order to seek justice. And is it justice Kohlhaas seeks or vengeance? What of those who lost their property or their lives because of this quest for justice? How do their interests count in the larger equation? Yet what alternative is there if the ruling authority is corrupt? All very good stock for a discussion among interested and interesting people.

If the plot of Michael Kohlhaas seems familiar to you, you may remember reading it in the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. In it, his protagonist, Coalhouse Walker, is treated similarly and resorts to a similar campaign of destruction to gain justice.

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