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Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist
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Michael Kohlhaas (1811)

by Heinrich von Kleist

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
5552025,573 (3.58)36
  1. 00
    The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer (spiphany)
  2. 00
    Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott (thorold)
    thorold: Rob Roy MacGregor and Michael Kohlhaas are both peaceful traders who turn to outlawry as a reaction to the abuse of feudal power. Scott certainly knew about Kleist's novella when he wrote Rob Roy.
  3. 00
    The Lucky Mill by Ioan Slavici (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Both about a merchant alone in the wilderness who is abused by local strongmen, oppressed by a corrupt government, and seeks justice through violence.
  4. 00
    Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Doctorow called his book "a quite deliberate hommage" (sic) to Kleist's story.
  5. 00
    Njal's Saga by Anonymous (andejons)
    andejons: Both are stories dealing with legal procedure and violence.
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» See also 36 mentions

English (16)  German (2)  Italian (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (20)
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Despite being an 1810 recasting of a historical German personage into an avenging folk-hero, Heinrich von Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas is surprisingly modern. The story goes like this: [spoilers] Kohlhaas, a horse-trader, is taking his wares to market when he is stopped by a newly-erected toll booth. Taken unawares and unable to pay the toll, he leaves two of his black horses behind as collateral in the care of the land's owner. Upon returning from market, he finds the horses in extremely poor condition and the groom he left behind to care for them has been badly beaten and driven off the land. Kohlhaas' attempts at redress through the legal system are frustrated by the machinations of bureaucracy and more readily by the political connections of the landowner who has wronged him. Ignored by the system, and the attempts at redress leading directly to the death of his wife, Kohlhaas embarks on a violent insurrection in the land, sacking the castles of those who harbour the now-fugitive landowner and drawing up a manifesto demanding the airing of his grievances against the landowner in court and the return of his horses to their prior condition. More violence and political machinations later, and with Kohlhaas viewed as both a hero to the common people and as a dangerous incendiary to the rulers, Kohlhaas' lawsuit is heard. The court finds in his favour, with the horses returned to him in their prior condition, but he is sentenced to death for all the violence that he has incited to get the case heard. [end spoilers]

The reason the story is enduringly modern is because it poses an eternal question: At what price justice? Faced with injustice – whether through corruption or privilege – and when the system fails the individual, how far does the individual go in search of redress? Not only does this strike an emotional chord with the reader (who loves an underdog), concerning as it does an honest man denied recourse to the law, but it also asks fundamental questions about the fabric of society: whether it is working for everyone or just for a privileged few, and what those who find themselves disadvantaged can do about it. It evokes the intolerability of the suppressed voice, of the honest, dues-paying man who, when the time comes, finds his society wanting: "Nothing caused him greater dissatisfaction with the government he had dealings with than the semblance of justice it displayed, while all the time dishonouring the amnesty it granted him." (pg. 88). Particularly after the year we've just had, with President Trump finding decisive votes in the so-called 'flyover states' and the established classes in Britain trying to reverse or water down the EU referendum result, the question is both timely and enduring. Cleverly, von Kleist doesn't try to preach any answers, and only poses the Gordian knot of society and the individual for us to wrestle with.

In fact, with this libertarian angst which permeates the tale, it was no wonder that the story was adapted into a Western film, 1999's The Jack Bull (the only wonder is why the film is not widely fêted – it is excellent). With knowledge of the film and the story's end already known to me (I hesitated to include the spoiler alert at the start of this review, because I think it unnecessary for a tale like this), I couldn't help but compare the two, and The Jack Bull comes out on top. To start with, Kohlhaas has some traits that are unpalatable to modern ears, not least that he is quicker to violence than the film's protagonist, and his killing of women and children somewhat compromises the no-right-answers approach von Kleist is going for. But if not the violence of the man, than at least his sensibilities are for our time.

The book is also inferior in other ways, not least how it tells the story. The prose is rather functional: it often reads like a summary rather than a complete story spun with good pace and consideration for the reader's entertainment. I did wonder whether this was a translation issue (I read a 1967 Blackie edition translated into English by James Kirkup) but the style seems too deliberate and indelible to the tone of the story. I have no doubt this is how von Kleist wrote it, and I do wonder whether I would have liked Michael Kohlhaas as much had I not already watched (and loved) The Jack Bull so many times over the years. Unlike the streamlined and cohesive film, the book doesn't adequately explain how Kohlhaas increased his forces, nor how he proved to be so adept at insurrectionary warfare. Much of the backstory and qualifying detail is glossed over: like I said, at times it reads like a summary. It also goes off the rails a bit towards the end, devolving into a boring sequence of bureaucratic manoeuvres before ending with a silly focus on magic gypsies and prophecies. Kohlhaas' lawsuit against the man who mistreated his horses becomes almost an afterthought.

This is a shame, because the story itself, even imperfectly told, is an arresting one. It is profound and thought-provoking and noble and tragic all at once. It speaks to that eternal abrasiveness between the rights of the individual and the wellbeing of the society as a whole – questions that are increasingly being asked in western democracies rejecting the economic inequality of globalization at the voting booth. Whilst the system usually rights itself in the end, it is changed by individuals, whose actions are not only necessary for the moral rightness of their specific causes but also for the general benefit of their society in the long-run, having expended themselves in ironing out the kinks in that society as it ploughs onwards. And for those elites who shrug off the common man as insignificant or 'deplorable' or that they 'didn't know what they were voting for', whilst blindly feathering their own nests, they should read in the story of Michael Kohlhaas the power of the honest man who has his voice suppressed:

"You can bring me to the scaffold, but I am able to harm you, and I will." (pg. 108). ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Feb 27, 2017 |
There’s a lot to glean from this tale of injustice because the issues that the story raises are just as relevant today as they were when this was written over 200 years ago.

Michael initially loses his horse which is taken hostage and mistreated by someone more powerful. His pursuit of a case against this individual reveals further inequalities and cause Michael even further loss.

The balance tips when Michael takes justice into his own hands, gathers a band of brigands and takes revenge not just on those directly responsible but also on anyone even vaguely related to them. Michael is successful in his revenge but the excessive measures he uses raise outcry from the likes of even Martin Luther.

Michael’s end is less successful than his pursuit of justice. Ironically, justice can be said to have been done all round by that point.

The novel thus raises questions about what to do in the face of the unfair and immoral imposition of power. It also explores how justified we might be in the way we respond to it. Michael is not Gandhi, but you do understand why he feels the way he does and you can, to a certain extent relate to his motivation.

However, while he starts as the reader’s hero, it will be the rare reader who feels he’s as heroic as the novel ends. We’re thus challenged in the way that we judge how power is wielded not just by the fat cats but also by the man in the street against the status quo.

It’s not an easy read for all sorts of reasons (translation, age, brutal murder of innocents, etc.), but it is important, so if you’re into important books, this is for you. ( )
  arukiyomi | Aug 20, 2016 |
This short novella is about Michael Kohlhaas, a horse dealer from Brandenburg. He is an upright, honest man who is well-respected in his town. While taking a group of horses to market one day, he is told by the corrupt Squire Tronka that he must have a passport to allow him to bring horses into the territory. He leaves two horses with the squire as a security deposit and intends to obtain the proper paperwork in town. Instead he discovers that the passport is not required and that the squire is trying to cheat him. When he returns, he discovers that his horses have been worked in the squire’s fields until they were exhausted and emaciated and that the groom he left has been beaten and driven off. When the lawsuit he brings against the squire is dismissed due to the squire’s connections in the government, Kohlhaas dedicates the rest of his life to seeing justice served and takes the law into his own hands.

In and of itself, this isn’t a great story. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Kohlhaas when his response to being denied justice is to deny it to others by killing most of the squire’s household and setting fire to whole towns. When you look at it in light of its obvious influence on the character Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and in terms of some of the current events happening in the U.S. and around the world, however, it becomes obvious that Kohlhaas’s problem is a universal and timeless issue. The pdf version I read had no paragraph breaks, but at only 39 pages, the wall of text wasn’t too tedious to get through and it was well worth the amount of time it took to read. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
Too many people know how good this is for me to be able to add anything. ( )
  V.V.Harding | Apr 21, 2015 |
It is beyond me to discuss this title. I had a hard time reading it from the get go. I googled the book quite frequently to get the gist of it and it seems, I think, we are supposed to sympathize with Kohlhaas. I thought he was a selfish, pig-headed, violent idiot and thought he should have just taken his horses back and got on with his life instead of causing such pain and anguish in the name of so-called "justice". I call it revenge. I really tried to force myself to finish, perhaps becoming enlightened eventually, but at the 60% mark just had to put it aside as not for me. I can't complain though, out of the 14 books I've read for this club so far this is the first that I have DNF'd and the really the first that I didn't even enjoy at least to 3 stars. ( )
1 vote ElizaJane | Sep 2, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (37 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kleist, Heinrich vonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ågren, ErikTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dorowin, HermannEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lützeler, Paul MichaelAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0976140721, Paperback)

"You can send me to the scaffold, but I can make you suffer, and I mean to."

Based on actual historic events, this thrilling saga of violence and retribution bridged 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 Kohlhaas is also one of the most stirring tales ever written of the quest for justice.

The Art of The Novella Series

Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature's greatest writers. In the Art Of The Novella series, Melville House celebrates this renegade art form and its practitioners with titles that are, in many instances, presented in book form for the first time.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:32 -0400)

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