About the middle of the sixteenth century there lived beside the banks of the River Havel a horse-dealer called Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, who was one of the most honourable as well as one of the most terrible men of his age. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man could have been considered a paragon of civil virtues. In a village that still bears his name he owned a farm where he peacefully earned a living by his trade; his wife bore him children whom he brought up in the fear of God to be hardworking and honest; he had not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursued one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer. emphasis mine
I used to find this story painful to read. First of all the mistreatment of the horses was always a big sticking point. But once I got past that the unrelenting horribleness of the Junker Wenzel von Tronka was also distressing. Maybe it’s just me but another thing that was more subtly disturbing was the feeling of commitment to Kohlhaas’s actions and destiny. Kohlhaas’s sense of justice is after all one of the highest fruits of civilization. It’s significant that he is the son of a schoolmaster. The justice that he has been taught so scrupulously to honor is denied him at every turn, on the first appeal he has ever had to make to it. It’s like the story keeps telling you that civilization teaches you a sense of justice that you can never hope to have satisfied.
As he pursues satisfaction, Kohlhaas discovers outrage upon outrage; justice and social order have parted company. Each person who has contact with Kohlhaas’s case only interests himself as far as his own interest is concerned. No one sees all the small failures of justice all the way to their remotest implications — Kohlhaas does. That’s his sense of justice.
What does Kohlhaas want? A seemingly trivial thing. He wants the two black horses that the Junker abused to be restored to their former health, and some small expenses that he has been out by the whole affair. By the time he sneaks into the study of Martin Luther, his wife is dead, he has sold his farm, and he is at the top of the Most Wanted list. He explains himself to Luther. It is a really touching scene, because Luther is about the last person in authority Kohlhaas can trust, he’s the one person to whom he can reveal the sadness.
’You impious and terrible man!’ cried Luther… ‘who gave you the right to attack Junker von Tronka in pursuance of decrees issued on no authority but your own, and when you could not find him in his castle to come down with fire and sword on the whole community that gave him shelter?’
‘No one, your Reverence,’ replied Kohlhaas, ‘from this moment on! Information I had received from Dresden deceived me and led me astray! The war I am waging against human society becomes a crime if this assurance you give me is true and society had not cast me out!’
‘Cast you out!’ cried Luther, staring at him. ‘What mad idea has taken possession of you? Who do you say has cast you out from the community of the state in which you have lived? Has there ever, so long as states have existed, been a case of anyone, no matter who, becoming an outcast of society?’
‘I call that man an outcast,’ answered Kohlhaas, clenching his fist, ‘who is denied the protection of the law! For I need that protection if my peaceful trade is to prosper; indeed it is for the sake of that protection that I take refuge, with all the goods I have acquired, in that community. Whoever withholds it from me drives me out into the wilderness among savages. It is he — how can you deny it? — who puts into my hands the club I am wielding to protect myself.’(emphasis mine)
Luther tells him that the Elector has not yet seen Kohlhaas’s petition.
’If state officials suppress lawsuits behind his back or make a mockery of his otherwise sacred name without his knowledge, who but God can call him to account for appointing such servants? Is a cursed wretch like you entitled to judge him for it?
(Sixteenth century Germany was not a democracy. Luther invokes the divine right of kings with such assurance! )
Kohlhaas, still not intimidated, says fine, then take him my petition if I haven’t been cast out and get me the justice I want. Then, it’s like Luther has trouble wrapping his brain around exactly what it is that Kohlhaas wants.
Luther, with an expression of annoyance, pushed papers to and fro on his desk and said nothing. He was angered by the defiant attitude this strange man adopted towards the state, and thinking of the writ which he had serviced on the Junker from Kohlhaasenbruck, he asked him what he expected of the Dresden court.
When Kohlhaas explains just exactly what he wants, calculated, apparently, down to the last pfennig,
’You insane, incomprehensible, terrible man!’ exclaimed Luther, staring at him.
Do try to remember that the Luther of this story is the greatest living moral authority in the Protestant world. There is no higher moral judge — not, at least, till you get to Heaven. And the two of them, Kohlhaas and Luther, proceed to haggle. In the end Kohlhaas asks for the sacrament. Luther refuses it to him because Kohlhaas refuses to forgive the Junker.
You understand at this point, if you didn’t already, that Kohlhaas is doomed. When he calls himself outcast from society by the withholding of justice, you know this feels true. Your heart is totally with him. And you know that society will destroy a splendid figure of a man to implement its own “justice” — a justice about which while you see the necessity of it (self-defense), you now have a fair amount of moral skepticism.
The Elector at last delivers the justice that Kohlhaas has been seeking, as the horse trader, carrying his two children, is being led to the scaffold. His horses are returned to him in good condition, and the small sum of money that he claimed.
Kohlhaas took the court’s verdict which was passed to him at a sign from the High Chanecllor, and setting down beside him the two children he had been carrying, his eyes wide and sparkling with triumph; then when he also found a clause condemning the Junker Wenzel to two years’ imprisonment, he knelt down at a distance before the Elector with his hands crossed over his breast, completely overwhelmed with emotion. Rising again and putting his hand to his bosom, he joyfully assured the High Chancellor that his dearest wish on earth had been fulfilled…
Kohlhaas is one of those people that see beyond. To see himself as cast among savages is not just self-dramatization. You can’t judge Kohlhaas without also considering that a society in which Kohlhaas could not hope for justice was not a peaceful place. When the Junker was allowed to get away with cheating him, Kohlhaas truly found himself among savages.
He sees the damage to his material interests but what is infinitely more important to him is the violation of an essential principle of society — that protection the law owes to the citizen. Violated in him. Why should
it be violated in his particular case?
He gets the letter from the governor and the State Chancellery’s resolution, two documents that basically tell him to stop making a nuisance of himself and that utterly fail to grasp the principles involved. By this time, also, Kohlhaas is aware of the nepotism and corruption among those to whom he has gone for justice — they’re looking out for each other, denying him what he asks, simply because they can.
His refusal to take his horses back in their degraded condition now makes him into a nuisance to people who think that in giving him back two nearly nearly ruined nags for the healthy young animals he left, was an act of great liberality and condescension on their part. And if that isn’t good enough for him, if he doesn’t look at their kindness the same way they do, well, it’s because he is a troublemaker. The expectation that he will take the horses after the best of them has been used up is a legally sanctioned cheat, a lie, an insult.
This contemptuous dishonesty is what makes Kohlhaas “foam with rage.”
Do they take him for a person with no claim to justice or respect? Do they take him for a person whose claim can be comfortably ignored or evaded? Is this really all he has deserved? Do they take him for an asshole?
Since for Kohlhaas the horses were not the issue — he would have been equally aggrieved had they been a couple of dogs — this letter made him foam with rage. A feeling of repugnance such as he had never experienced before filled his heart as he looked towards the gate whenever he heard a sound in the courtyard, expecting to see the Junker’s men appear and, perhaps even with some excuse, hand the starved and emaciated horses back to him. Well schooled in the world’s ways though he was, this would have been the one eventuality to which his feelings could have found no fitting response. Shortly afterwards, however, he heard, from a friend who had traveled that way, that the nags were as heretofore being used on the fields at Tronka Castle with the Junker’s other horses.
The Junker, you see, has moved on
It’s when he realizes that the Junker has moved on
that Kohlhaas gets a made up mind. He starts preparing for war. His wife pleads with him to give the Junker and his people one last chance, offering to go to them herself. She pleads for their lives, for their goodness, and he honors her plea. This isn’t like saying “I’m giving you one last chance.” He is thinking, “Maybe I haven’t been fair to them.” What is the result of this granting of the benefit of the doubt? His wife is brought home in a wagon, brutalized out of her mind and fatally wounded. For what? Whoever did it to her did it in the defense of callousness, casual brutality, unthinking self-interest and dishonesty. This pointless crime is a final unneeded proof, for Kohlhaas, of the Junker's moral incoherence.
Her last words to him are a plea to forgive them. And he can’t do it. A man who would love to have given his dying, beloved wife what she wanted.
Anyway the first few times I read this story I really couldn’t understand Kohlhaas’s motivation to drag things on as he did. Like I said it just made me uncomfortable. But then the last couple times I read it something clicked. I do identify with Kohlhaas. With the quality of his feelings, with his inability to “let it go.” With the blazing light of his outrage. With his relentless rationality and his care to do justice to all claims.
I can’t think of anybody in this story who I would rather be than Michael Kohlhaas. If I had all of fiction to choose from I might like to be Elizabeth Bennett. Things do work out nicely for her. But the person who it seems to me lives the life of highest purpose, selflessness, courage and truthfulness in this story is Kohlhaas. What vitality he has! People are supposed to give up and go away quietly. And he just can’t.
Kohlhaas’s death occurs amid general lamentation. He has been publicly executed as a criminal but his character is intact. In fact, from that sort of high peak when his anger turns to a purpose, he sets out, with harmony restored to his heart, to show the world who he is, he has already accepted death. Because of that same inner consistency and clarity of character, that same sense of justice. The Junker is still alive at the end, but his character (which lacked structural integrity) is totally destroyed. No one will ever consider him a man of truth or integrity or courage or honor, ever again.
I suppose there are people who could read this story as a fantastic and lively allegory or romance. I know when I read this I keep thinking of Kafka’s fantastic tales of punishment and criminality — the ones as it happens that I find almost unreadable for their tediousness. The story’s setting in the sixteenth century makes it seem like a sort of romance. But in my experience, I could throw a stone on any street and hit someone who would act as Kohlhaas’s enemies act. And I know, from my own experience, that anger at such conduct feels a lot like what Kohlhaas feels. The psychological truth of this story isn't buried under symbols or devices; it is pretty much right up on the surface of the narrative.