UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Historizität-Aktualität-Intertextualität : Kohlhaas in der deutschsprachigen Literatur Mueller, Thomas


The transformation of a historical figure into a literary character reflects a twofold interest. On the one hand it shows an interest in that figure in its given historical context, and on the other hand it reveals a topical interest, which uses that figure and its historical context to establish connections and parallels to the present of a respective writer. Hans Kohlhase, a poor merchant from the area around Berlin during the first half of the 16th century, whose legal quarrel with a Saxon nobleman led to a feud that lasted for several years and only came to an end with his execution in 1540, first appeared as a literary character in Heinrich von Kleist's story Michael Kohlhaas. Since then about three dozen adaptations of the theme have been written in the German language, a number reflecting a continually renewed interest in that character as well as in the themes of rebellion, authority and justice. An unpublished dissertation on the history of the Kohlhaas-theme, written in 1970 by Herbert Schillinger at the University of Vienna, was found to have considerable short-comings. In searching for his primary texts the author evidently did not go to a lot of trouble and simply used those adaptations mentioned by Elisabeth Frenzel in her Stoffe der Weltliteratur. Moreover, his unreflected classification of the individual works according to literary periods reveals a profound lack of judgement, is often questionable, and sometimes totally inappropriate, e.g. when he classifies Arnolt Bronnen's work from 1929 under 'Expressionist Drama'. Schillinger's individual chapters consist of short biographies of the writers and superficial plot-summaries of their texts. Not once does he consider aspects of historicity of a given adaptation, nor does he even attempt to discuss why the Kohlhaas-theme may have aroused the interest of writers at a particular point in history and how this may be reflected in their works. Likewise, Schillinger does not deal at all with the theoretical discussion of thematology that had begun in the early sixties. His failure to explain his terminology, his use of the terms 'theme'(Stoff) and 'motif' as synonyms, suggests that he is not even aware of that debate. Avoiding Schillinger's short-comings, this dissertation presents the first extensive study of one of the most important themes of German literature, its adaptations and transformations through almost two centuries. In the past a major point of criticism put forward against traditional thematological studies has been that they did not deal with the aspects of historicity of a theme and its adaptations, but rather judged many texts in their relation to some canonized masterpiece, often the first literary version of the theme by a classical author. In response to that justified criticism, this study focuses on the aspects of historicity. An adaptation of a historical theme contains two levels of historicity: one includes all elements -- events, people etc. -- belonging in the actual time and historical circumstances of the theme -- in our case the early 16th century; this level will be comprised under the term 'historicity' of a theme. The other level contains elements reflecting the time of a given adaptation and will be called the 'topicality' of a theme. Adaptations will be analyzed in their own historical context, their relation to prevalent ideas, ideologies, literary movements or fashions. In short, 'topicality' reflects the discourses, in Foucault's sense, in which various writers partake. These two aspects, historicity and topicality, as well as their relation to each other, will be at the center of the analyses of the individual adaptations. A third aspect is of chief interest in dealing with texts which do not simply adapt the theme but transform it. This is the aspect of 'intertextuality'. In most cases such works contain postfigurations of the Kohlhaas-character. Their protagonists live in a different time and under different circumstances, but explicit intertextual relations to the Kohlhaas-theme -- usually to Kleist's story -- justify the inclusion of these works in this study. In these cases the intertextual relations to the theme or one of its adaptations are of special interest. However, texts need to have such intertextual references in order to be of concern for this study. A simple similarity of a central motif without any such references is not sufficient and thus does not justify including a work in a dissertation on the history of the Kohlhaas-theme. Heinrich von Kleist, the first writer to adapt the theme may, as his initial Kohlhaas-fragment suggests, have originally planned to write a character-novella. Comparable to the protagonist of a classical tragedy, Kohlhaas, through his insistence on pursuing his understanding of justice to an untenable extreme, would turn this virtue into a tragic flaw and violate the very justice he intends to uphold. However, speculations about Kleist's original plans for the continuation of the fragment must necessarily be fruitless. In dealing with the published complete story, this analysis ascertains an interest significantly different from what the fragment suggests. After the initial exposition of its protagonist as a righteous citizen of the state, the text focuses on the wrong-doings of the authorities. By introducing two states, instead of only one in the fragment, Kleist confronts the explicitly negative portrayal of the government of Saxony with the positive counter-example of the Elector of Brandenburg. By judging the conduct of the authorities using the terminology of enlightenment theories of government and justice, the text goes beyond the level of the historicity of the theme and reveals its topical interest in the latter. The brutal rebellion of Michael Kohlhaas, his attempt at overthrowing the government and changing the order of the world evokes the French Revolution, its causes as well as its development. As Goethe did in his assessment of that historical event, Kleist blames the unjust government, which violated the social contract in Rousseau's sense, for the out-break of the uprising, without, however, justifying the latter. The description of the brutality and inhumanness of Kohlhaas' feud is sufficient evidence against that uprising. Thus, in the elector's concluding judgements the outrage against the authorities is regarded as justified, but the means of the uprising are condemned. The mysterious episode about the gipsy and her prophecies, which critics have interpreted in many different ways, symbolically comprises the central action of the text: by abusing their power the despotic authorities provoke the uprising of the people, which itself is not approved of in its excesses and whose leader therefore has to be punished. By employing contemporary theories about the state Kleist's adaptation of the theme attempts to appeal to absolutist governments to prevent revolution through reforms. The first phase of adaptations of the Kohlhaas-theme after Kleist reflects the struggle between revolutionary and restorative tendencies before and around 1848. Maltitz, a writer with democratic inclinations seems to be mainly interested in the motif of 'pride of social class'. Not only the members of the nobility in his play, but the protagonist as well act according to that passion. However, what will become the main trait of many later dramatizations does already becomes apparent in this play: the interest in the theme, especially in its inherent social conflicts, is overshadowed by the writer's efforts to copy the great tragedies of the classical period. In his attempt to place the protagonist in a situation of tragic guilt he subordinates the genuinely social conflicts of the theme to a normative conception of tragedy and the tragic; Kohlhas acts out of tragic blindness and thus he becomes guilty; his rebellion is condemned. As does Kleist's story, the play ends with a demand for a just government. Clearly anti-revolutionary intentions guide Eichendorff's adaptation of the theme. In a postfiguration of Kleist's Kohlhaas he discredits the French Revolution and thus revolutionary tendencies in his own time. Through intertextual references he also condemns the deeds of Kleist's protagonist. The dramatist Schindler employs the Kohlhaas-rebellion as a parallel to the unsuccessful revolution of 1848. Like large parts of the liberal bourgeoisie in that year, Schindler's Kohlhaas puts his trust in an absolutist ruler and thus abandons his anti-feudal position. However, the question whether revolutionary actions are justified never occurs in this play. Rather, Schindler concentrates on the reasons for the failure of a social uprising, whose justification and necessity are upheld at the end of the play. Far from making such explicit, statements for or against social change, most of the works of the following phase of adaptations are the work of epigones. In the 1860s the reception of German classical literature produced a flood of adaptations of historical themes such as the one about Kohlhaas. In these works topicality hardly manifests itself in explicit references, but rather in their absence, as well as in the dramatic conception. By modifying the initial unjust action against Kohlhaas from an act of arbitrariness into a forgivable mistake, Ising basically erases the potential conflicts of the theme, which in his play do not arise from social circumstances but are the result of stubbornness. Thus, individual guilt becomes the focus of his drama. Finally recognizing his guilt, Ising's Kohlhaas willingly accepts his just punishment. Due to the harmonizing character of this adaptation, both worldly and spiritual leaders, the two electors and Martin Luther, are positive, flawless figures. The drama employs a pattern which can be found in several other adaptations of that time: the Elector of Saxony does not know about Kohlhaas' complaints; Luther succeeds in convincing the rebel to give up; and the Elector of Brandenburg tries in vain to save him from capital punishment. The adaptation of Prölß follows exactly the same pattern. Both Schenk and Graff alleviate the conflicts of the theme by motivating them in a completely new way. Instead of class-struggle and arbitrary actions of the nobility both employ erotic emotions as a triggering motif. Essential elements of the theme thus become secondary. Obviously these concessions to the expectations of a mass-audience reduce social conflict to individual passions. A common flaw of all these plays is a certain inconsistency in the course of their action. The main reason for this may be found in the incompatibility of the harmonizing tendency of these texts with their closeness to Kleist's story. The only outstanding work of this phase in the history of the theme is the novel by Franzos, who, in a postfiguration of Kohlhaas, deals with the interpretation by the famous jurist Rudolf von Ihering. Franzos questions the claim of his protagonist, and thus that of Kleist's Kohlhaas, to act in the name and for the good of society. The analysis of adaptations written between 1890 and 1910 established two main characteristics reflecting topicality. As part of a new national identity arising in the Wilhelminian era, Kohlhaas becomes a model-figure, the prototype of a true German as described in some important manifests of German irrational ideology of the time. His acting according to his feeling for right and wrong is seen as a typical trait of German nature and, raised above Roman law, becomes the guarantor of appropriate action. Authors like Holzer and Prellwitz focus on the specific German nature of their protagonist by contrasting his character traits with those allegedly held by other nationalities. Since Kohlhaas becomes a figure of national identity, both criticism of the authorities and dealing with the phenomena of rebellion and social change become secondary or are even neglected. The play by Prellwitz exemplifies this in a characteristic way: the conflict is settled in a conciliatory fashion, and even though Kohlhaas receives his punishment his violent actions are described as a natural force, as a true, unrestrained expression of German nature -- this is an early indication of the coming barbarism of fascist ideology and thus proof that its roots lie in the irrationalist thoughts of the Second Reich. In addition, the positive role of the Elector of Brandenburg in Kleist's story is utilized by Prellwitz, John and Geyer in order to glorify his descendant, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Besides such ideological utilization of the theme there are other adaptations that are clearly influenced by the literary movement of Naturalism. These works not only show a strong interest in social problems but also reveal a new concept of historical drama. More than any writer before him Zoozmann sticks to the available historical documents. So does Weitbrecht, who, moreover, enlarges the level of historicity by including the historical dispute between Thomas Munzer and Martin Luther about authority and social change. His play turns into a study of the possibilities as well as the failure of social revolution in the Reformation period. A very similar interest can be found in Stramm's adaptation of the theme, which is strongly indebted to the drama of Gerhart Hauptmann. Stramm puts Kohlhaas's struggle into the larger frame of the peasant rebellion of 1525. Realistic depictions of the social misery of the peasants mark this play, which finally focuses on the failure of the uprising. The protagonist becomes an early fighter for civil rights, a forerunner of the future struggle for liberty and equality. Under the rule of National-Socialism, where Kleist is turned into a classic of the 'new Germany', the ideological utilization of the Kohlhaas-figure continues. In his violent resistance to injustice and his insistence on his feeling for right and wrong he becomes a prototype for the fascists, who in his struggle see an analogy to their fight against the Weimar Republic. However, the reception of the theme is often ambivalent since the motif of resistance against authority and state does not quite agree with the totalitarian rulers. Therefore Kohlhaas seemed also apt to become a symbol of resistance against the regime. Bronnen's two versions of his adaptation of the theme paradigmatically demonstrate these two opposing views of Kohlhaas. The first, written towards the end of the Weimar Republic, defends the protagonist's actions with the very phrases Bronnen used elsewhere to defend fascist terrorists. In the later version, written shortly after the war, Kohlhaas becomes a symbol of resistance against injustice and authority. Most adaptations of the thirties vary between these two possibilities. Mayer-Exner explicitly declares the action of his play to be a mirror image of current events and makes his Kohlhaas a symbol of the 'awakening' of the German people. The text does not portray the feud but focuses on the description of a morbid state controlled by Jewish bankers. Kohlhaas sets out to fight that state. Brecht's parable on fascism has a protagonist who turns out to be an anti-Kohlhaas collaborating with the rulers. Through intertextual reference Kleist's Kohlhaas becomes a positive counter-example, and thus again a symbol of resistance. A more subtle criticism of the Nazi-regime is found in Gilbricht's adaptation. The drama concentrates on unmasking an extremely despotic government. In the end Kohlhaas 's refusal to accept mercy does not express an acknowledgement of his guilt, but is an act of defiance, a continuation of his resistance. Geisenheyner's play does not explicitly reflect Nazi-ideology but rather the everyday consciousness of certain social classes under the conditions of the Third Reich. Finally, Bergengruen's novel contains another postfiguration of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. The text's criticism of its protagonist's actions thus includes criticism of Kohlhaas as well. Written only a few years after the break-down of the Nazi-regime, the Christian message of the novel, promoting obedience to any authority, turns into a justification of the so-called 'Inner Emigration'. Again Kohlhaas becomes a figure of resistance, this time, however, with negative connotations. After this phase of the history of the Kohlhaas-theme, as well as after this phase of German history, there are no adaptations for about two decades. A film based on Kleist's story, produced in the late sixties, does show a new interest in the theme which has its roots in the new political climate created by the leftist student movement. In the struggle of Kohlhaas, writers find analogies to present conflicts; the historical becomes topical once again. Best's continuation of Kleist's story primarily intends to establish the connection between past and present. Kohlhaas emigrates to America, where he becomes the founder of a libertarian commune whose example has an influence on a famous Russian revolutionary of the 20th century and from there on current political movements. East-German adaptations by Schutz and Dresen show that under the political system they live in, original quotes from Kleist's text can produce new, dissident connotations. Moreover, Schutz creates a hero who contradicts normative aesthetic rules of socialist writing. The failure of his revolt hints at the GDR as the product of an imported revolution that was at no time an expression of the will of the people and has not led to real change. Schutz's drama becomes an inquiry into the dilemma of German revolutions. Besides revealing a strong interest in revolutionary movements in German history, Karsunke's adaptation reflects the current phenomenon of terrorism. In his protagonist's actions the author criticizes terrorism in its wrong choice of means to achieve social change. But in the description of the authorities' counter-actions he refers to the West-German state's over-reacting against terrorism. In postfigurations of Kohlhaas, the texts by Walter and Eue focus on precisely these two aspects. Finally, Plessen's novel contains several of the characteristics found in adaptations of this phase. She too establishes analogies between past and present and at the same time reflects on the problems of such an undertaking. Plessen's Kohlhaas becomes a representative of an 'alternative scene' in the Reformation period, who, like some of his contemporary models, walks a thin line between Utopian ideas of liberty on the one hand, and terrorist actions on the other hand. And once again the reactions of the authorities are condemned. This study shows that the Kohlhaas-theme is indeed one of the most important themes in German literature. After Faust, Kohlhaas is the most significant literary figure to have been taken from German history. Again and again the different adaptations based on his life reflect, either in content or in form, a topical interest. The diversity of the different texts illustrates the many aspects of the historicity of any adaptation of a historical theme.

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