Michael Kohlhaas

Part of The Art of the Novella

Based on historical events, this thrilling saga of violence and retribution bridges the gap between Medieval and modern literature, and speaks so profoundly to the contemporary spirit that it has been the basis of numerous plays, movies, and novels.

It has become, in fact, a classic tale: that of the honorable man forced to take the law into his own hands. In this incendiary prototype, a minor tax dispute intensifies explosively, until the eponymous hero finds the forces of an entire kingdom, and even the great Martin Luther, gathered against him. But soon even Luther comes to echo the growing army of peasants asking, “Isn’t Kohlhaas right?”

Widely acknowledged as one of the masterworks of German literature, Michael Kohlaas is also one of the most stirring tales ever written of the quest for justice.

HEINRICH VON KLEIST was born in 1777 in Frankfurt, Germany, to a Prussian military family. He was placed into military service at fifteen, fought against the French, and resigned his commission at twenty-one. Unable to obtain a civil service job, he established one of Germany’s first daily newspapers, which failed, and he traveled extensively through a Europe engulfed by the Napoleonic Wars. He was hospitalized for several mysterious illnesses, including surgery for an indeterminate sexual problem that led him to break off a marital engagement. Throughout, he wrote revolutionary plays and stories, such as Penthesilea andThe Marquise of O—, embracing realism and rejecting the ideals of eminent German humanists such as Goethe. As part of a suicide pact, Kleist shot dead a terminally-ill friend, then himself, In 1811.