Michael Kohlhaas - Heinrich von Kleist _Michael Kohlhaas_ is a fictionalized account of an actual historical event. A horse trader from Brandenburg on a journey to Saxony is falsely extorted for a border crossing by the Squire Wenzel von Tronka, who also keeps two of Kohlhaas’ horses as surety against the trader’s inability to pay. Upon arriving at Saxony, Kohlhass learns that, as he suspected, the border tax was a ruse and on his return journey demands his horses back from the squire. Instead he finds that the servant he had left in charge of the horses was beaten and run out of the castle, and the horses so maltreated and overworked that they are on the point of dying. Infuriated, Kohlhaas demands reparation and thus a saga of justice denied begins.

How far would you go to redress wounded pride? At what point is the pursuit of justice an exercise in diminishing returns or even downright revolt? When is a citizen justified in renouncing his duties to the state if the state does not provide him with protection and justice? All of these questions are examined in this smart and compelling novella written by Heinrich von Kleist in the 19th century. It is obvious that von Kleist sympathizes with Kohlhaas throughout the tale, and the reader can’t help but do the same. Squire Tronka is pictured as the worst kind of nepotistic nobleman, calling on his family connections at court to have all of Kohlhaas’ lawful attempts at receiving justice thwarted. As Kohlhaas’ frustration mounts, so does ours. When his wife, who had pleaded with her husband to be allowed to carry his final petition to the court of the Elector in the assurance that this last ditch attempt to breach the courtly barriers of favouritism and ritual would be successful, is brought back to his home wounded and near death as the result of a mishap at court he can take no more.

Kohlhaas sends a decree to Tronka demanding that his horses be fattened and brought back to health at the Squire’s expense and returned to the horse dealer, along with reparation for the injuries suffered by his servant at the hands of the Squire’s men. Of course, this produces no result and so Kohlhaas, driven to the edge of endurance acquires a troop of men and proceeds to Tronka castle, intent on taking justice for himself if no one else will grant it to him. Kohlhaas is obviously not a man who believes in the old adage about revenge, for he takes his hot and at the end of a flaming torch as he burns Tronka castle to the ground. He pursues the Squire with a blind eye, killing nearly all whom he finds in the castle without distinction and while we may look at his response as extreme I have to admit that I couldn’t help but experience a bout of schadenfreude at the Squire’s turn from a smug, insolent bastard into a frightened, mewling kitten who probably pissed his pants when we discover that
the Squire, who, to the accompaniment of immoderate laughter, was just reading aloud to a crowd of young friends the decree which the horse-dealer had sent to him, had no sooner heard the sound of his voice in the courtyard than, turning suddenly pale as death, he cried out to the gentlemen—"Brothers, save yourselves!" and disappeared.

Uncaring of the safety of his guests, Tronka escapes Kohlhaas’ vengeful hand via a secret door and makes haste to a convent that is run, not surprisingly, by his aunt. Kohlhass, disappointed but not defeated, pursues his quarry and a game of cat and mouse ensues. It turns out that the Squire had managed to piss of many more than just the poor horse dealer and as Kohlhaas proclaims his just vengeance to the world, men start to flock to his banner. Soon he is an out-and-out outlaw, burning down the towns that dare keep his victim from Kohlhaas’ hands and the state decides that it must intervene. Matters take a roller coaster turn as Kohlhaas first defies the authorities stating that he is justified in his actions, whatever “laws” he may be breaking, for:
"I call that man cast out," answered Kohlhaas, clenching his fist, "who is denied the protection of the laws. For I need this protection, if my peaceable business is to prosper. Yes, it is for this that, with all my possessions, I take refuge in this community, and he who denies me this protection casts me out among the savages of the desert; he places in my hand—how can you try to deny it?—the club with which to protect myself."

A point that many philosophers might debate, on either side, but a compelling argument nonetheless. Finally Kohlhaas approaches Martin Luther himself, and after some argument the latter agrees to intercede for him to the elector in the name of justice.

It’s at this time that the story takes yet another turn and Kohlhaas the outlaw becomes Kohlhaas the plaintiff as he is apparently granted amnesty for his ravages in the countryside and waits for the interminable grind of the courts to proceed to his case. Of course things do not run smoothly and the ups and downs of Kohlhass’ fortunes are many. In the end it can be said that Kohlhaas both receives and satisfies the requirements of justice and the story itself is a very compelling one that asks some important questions. I enjoyed this work thoroughly. It was a gripping examination of human nature that presents us with a problem that has no easy answers.