Michael Kohlhaas is a character is Heinrich Kliest’s eponymous novella. Kohlhaas, based on the historical merchant Hans Kohlhase, is a man led to violence and uprising against the state by an minor act of injustice and the law’s refusal to compensate and protect him as a citizen.
Ernst Bloch described Kohlhaas “the Don Quixote of rigorous bourgious morality” (‘Über den Begriff der Weisheit’).
Kohlhaas’s commitment to seeing that justice be done drives him to madness and eventually death. He declares, in what might stand as a motto for a man of integrity:
Let justice be done, though it destroy the world
‘Fiat iusticia, et pereat mundus’
‘Es soll Gerechtigkeit geschehen, und gehe auch die Welt daran zu Grunde’
The novella raises questions about the contract between an individual and the state, the limits to which one should go to right a wrong, and the relationship between integrity, revenge, and bloody-mindedness. Is what von Kleist describes a perversion of integrity, an extreme of integrity, or something else altogether?
Kleist’s Kohlhaas features in our Portraits of Integrity project. For discussion and resources click here.
- Heinrich von Kleist 1811. Michael Kohlhaas