"A Don Quixote of rigorous bourgeois morality" - Michael Kohlhaas and his Feud

13 March 1534, Hans Kohlhase delivers his Fehdebrief, his declaration of a feud, to squire (Junker) Günter von Zaschwitz and the principality of Saxony.

"Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus" ("Let there be justice, though the world perish”, motto of Emperor Ferdinand I, 1503 - 1564)

A 19th century imagination of Hans Kohlhase    
In 1532, on his way to the fair at Leipzig, Junker Günter accused the horsedealer of theft and kept two of Kohlhase’s horses. Returning from Leipzig with a character reference, Kohlhase demanded his property back, the squire agreed but demanded an unreasonably high compensation for the upkeep of the beasts.

Seeking redress from the Kurfürsten (electors) of Brandenburg (his) and Saxony (von Zaschwitz’s), the case was proceeded to a court hearing in 1533 with the squire simply refusing to comply to Kohlhase’s complaint, demanding the increased amount of upkeep in return. Kohlhase saw no reasonable chance of winning his case anymore, paid and had his two horses returned. Both were in an abysmal condition from being overworked. One died the next day. Now Kohlhase had it. He went to his own private war.

Gathering a band of other desperadoes around him Kohlhase burned down a few farmsteads in Saxony until Martin Luther, averse to anything that smelled of open rebellion, felt compelled to intervene, wrote a letter to Kohlhase to seek redress in court instead of violence and got ignored. Kohlhase became a full-grown brigand chief during the next five years until he was caught and broken on the wheel in March 1540.
 
Kohlhaas in conversation with Luther
(Paul Heyel, 1885)
The conflict between the early absolutistic greed for power and the beginning of a bourgeois self-consciousness, virulent in the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century before the terror of the Thirty Years’ War almost pushed the region back to the Dark Ages, inspired Heinrich von Kleist to his famous novella “Michael Kohlhaas”, making the dealer-turned-brigand an almost Byronic figure seeking justice at all cost, a “Don Quixote of rigorous bourgeois morality” (Ernst Bloch).











An English translation of "Michael Kohlhaas" can be found here: