Michael Kohlhaas is a horse-dealer in mid-sixteenth century Germany, the time of Martin Luther. His neighbor the Junkernote von Tronka shamelessly "impounds" two of his horses and works them half to death. Kohlhaas files a complaint in court; the Junker has friends in high places and gets the case dismissed. Kohlhaas thinks he'll have to take drastic measures to get a hearing. His wife Lisbeth, hoping to avert this, takes a petition to the Elector of Saxony. She is shoved around by the Elector's servants and dies. She, dying, points to a verse in the Bible: "Forgive thine enemies; do good to them that hate thee." — Kohlhaas: "May God never forgive me as I forgive the Junker."
Kohlhaas declares war (literally) on the state of Saxony. He maintains that since the states won't give him justice in their courts, they've excluded him from citizenship and therefore he can declare war on them. He gathers a band of followers and begins burning villages and towns, saying that he'll stop just as soon as he gets a day in court. What he wants is justice, he doesn't think of it as revenge. His wife's death fuels his rage and removes his last hesitation, but only to carry out the plan he'd already made; he doesn't even increase his demands. What he asks for, in the end as at the beginning, is exactly what's due to him: his horses, in their original health, no more, no less (with the additional poetic justice that the Junker must care for the horses with his own hands until they're recovered).
But this is just the first half of the story. The political ramifications expand to the rest of Germany, and a mysterious Gypsy woman offers Kohlhaas something that might save his life: a paper on which a prophecy about the Elector of Saxony is written.
The story is generally regarded as a classic in German and European Literature. Franz Kafka was a major fan of Kleist and often read out "Michael Kohlhaas" to his friends, calling it one of his favorite stories.
The book received several adaptations:
- Man on Horseback (1969).
- Michael Kohlhaas provided the inspiration for Coalhouse Walker's story in Ragtime (1975).
- The Jack Bull (1999), a made for TV Western starring John Cusack.
- Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013), which keeps the 16th century context but moves the action from Germany to south-central France.
Michael Kohlhaas provides examples of:
- Black and Gray Morality: The Junker von Tronka and the Elector of Saxony are despicable, and most other people don't come off too well either; however, no one, least of all the author, fully endorses Kohlhaas' actions against them. The story ends without redemption, with a Broken Aesop.
- Corrupt Bureaucrat. Many of them, enabling powerful people to do what they want. Two of them are actually called "Hinz and Kunz", proverbial German "John Doe" names.
- Gypsy Fortune Teller: She acts as something of a deus ex machina intervening at several convenient points in the plot.
- Also, she might actually be Kohlhaas' dead wife in some way (she has the same birthmark on her neck, the family dog - who usually barks at strangers - instantly likes her, and a letter Kohlhaas gets from her via the castellan is actually signed "Elisabeth"...)
- Historical-Domain Character: Most of the characters, this being loosely based on history. Martin Luther, for one, has a small role as an unsuccessful mediator.
- The 2013 movie has Marguerite de Navarre as an antagonist.
- Outlaw: The main discussion between Kleist and Luther discusses the meaning of this:Luther: You impious and terrible man! 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?
Michael Kohlhaas: No one, your Reverence, from this moment on! Information I 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!
Luther: Cast you out! 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 from society?
Michael Kohlhaas: I call that man an outcast 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 defend myself.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: Kohlhaas manages to put it out of his mind that though the people who wronged him were nobles and corrupt government officials, by pillaging Saxony he's destroying the property of farmers and yeomen like himself.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Whatever may be written on that mysterious piece of paper, the Elector of Saxony believes it's important to his future and is desperate to read it. His very anxiety over the prophecy is his undoing.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: A man named Kohlhaas existed and did lay waste to the countryside in the 16th century. The letter that Martin Luther writes to Kohlhaas in this story is similar to one Luther actually wrote.