Does Michael Kohlhaas present the view that power corrupts? Abstract German writer Heinrich von Kleis wrote Michael Kohlhaas in 1811. Written shortly before his suicide at thirty-four, it is clear that von Kleis was himself a troubled man. The work shows the dark themes that the author was feeling, living as he was in the midst of the Napoleonic era…
Set in the time of Martin Luther, early to mid sixteenth century, Michael Kohlhaas concerns a horse trader by that name who is upset when he is charged with having improper papers while passing though the area controlled by Junker Wenzel von Tronka. Forced to leave two of his horses and a servant behind as collateral for being able to continue, Kohlhaas later learns that the charges are bogus and sues the Junker for reparations once he discovers the animals and the servant were mistreated. Despite the help of several friends, including Luther himself, the Junker prevails in court, mainly due to the corrupt influence of the Junker’s relations. Enraged, Kohlhaas takes matters into his own hands and forming an army, attacks and burns the castle of the Junker, who had already fled to another city. The band of outlaws attempts to take that city by force, although they are rebuked. Arrested and put into the dungeon in his hometown, the Junker’s influence eventually causes Kohlhaas to be executed. This is in spite of the fact that the suit finally prevailed and both the servant and horses were restored to health. How is that idea still relevant some three hundred years after von Kleis’ death? Who was the Junker? Furthermore, how does the novella present the view that power corrupts? Discussion The author had seen the illusions of power firsthand. First as a soldier and later as a writer and poet filled with wanderlust, von Kleis had visited and lived throughout a Europe ravaged by the excesses of Napoleon, even spending a time in Paris. Reading the story there is little doubt that the Junker, the main antagonist in Michael Kohlhaas, is a thinly veiled version of Napoleon, a non ruler who used brute force, along with influential friends and those loyal to him. Eventually the corrupt Junker is sentenced to two years of prison but unfortunately too late to save Kohlhaas’ life. This facet parallels von Kleis and Napoleon. Although the despot was not necessarily responsible for the author’s suicide, unlike Kohlhaas, von Kleis did not live long enough to see Napoleon’s utter defeat a mere four years later. The Junker had a very influential family who helped him secure retribution against Kohlhaas time and again. Even though the great Martin Luther (von Kleis was a great student of the Reformation) arranges an amnesty after Kohlhaas’ criminal acts, the Junker manages to have that overturned and Kohlhaas is imprisoned. It seems the two men had a personal vendetta against each other, for neither was content to relax until the other was totally destroyed. The Junker ultimately loses the lawsuit and his freedom for a short while and his opponent loses his very life. The rulers of a fractioned Germany that still existed in the author’s time likewise presented the evidence of power as a drug. The Governor of Brandenburg is shown as a weak and waffling individual who caves in to pressure and allows Kohlhaas to be rearrested, even though he had personally approved the man’s earlier release. His counterpart in Saxony was especially corrupt, for while he was almost forced to carry out the wishes of the Junker, Kohlhaas had some papers on his person which concerned Poland and their thoughts on invading Saxony. When Kohlhaas swallowed those papers just prior to his ...
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