The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 04 Masterpieces of German Literature Translated into English. in Twenty Volumes online

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and the very residence of the electoral governor of the province were
reduced to ruins and ashes.

The Governor who, when the day broke, believed his adversary to be in
Brandenburg, returned by forced marches when informed of what had
happened, and found the city in a general uproar. The people were
massed by thousands around the Squire's house, which was barricaded
with heavy timbers and posts, and with wild cries they demanded his
expulsion from the city. Two burgomasters, Jenkens and Otto by name,
who were present in their official dress at the head of the entire
city council, tried in vain to explain that they absolutely must await
the return of a courier who had been dispatched to the President of
the Chancery of State for permission to send the Squire to Dresden,
whither he himself, for many reasons, wished to go. The unreasoning
crowd, armed with pikes and staves, cared nothing for these words.
After handling rather roughly some councilors who were insisting upon
the adoption of vigorous measures, the mob was about to storm the
house where the Squire was and level it to the ground, when the
Governor, Otto von Gorgas, appeared in the city at the head of his
troopers. This worthy gentleman, who was wont by his mere presence to
inspire people to respectful obedience, had, as though in compensation
for the failure of the expedition from which he was returning,
succeeded in taking prisoner three stray members of the incendiary's
band, right in front of the gates of the city. While the prisoners
were being loaded with chains before the eyes of the people, he made a
clever speech to the city councilors, assuring them that he was on
Kohlhaas' track and thought that he would soon be able to bring the
incendiary himself in chains. By force of all these reassuring
circumstances he succeeded in allaying the fears of the assembled
crowd and in partially reconciling them to the presence of the Squire
until the return of the courier from Dresden. He dismounted from his
horse and, accompanied by some knights, entered the house after the
posts and stockades had been cleared away. He found the Squire, who
was falling from one faint into another, in the hands of two doctors,
who with essences and stimulants were trying to restore him to
consciousness. As Sir Otto von Gorgas realized that this was not the
moment to exchange any words with him on the subject of the behavior
of which he had been guilty, he merely told him, with a look of quiet
contempt, to dress himself, and, for his own safety, to follow him to
the apartments of the knight's prison. They put a doublet and a helmet
on the Squire and when, with chest half bare on account of the
difficulty he had in breathing, he appeared in the street on the arm
of the Governor and his brother-in-law, the Count of Gerschau,
blasphemous and horrible curses against him rose to heaven. The mob,
whom the lansquenets found it very difficult to restrain, called him a
bloodsucker, a miserable public pest and a tormentor of men, the curse
of the city of Wittenberg, and the ruin of Saxony. After a wretched
march through the devastated city, in the course of which the Squire's
helmet fell off several times without his missing it and had to be
replaced on his head by the knight who was behind him, they reached
the prison at last, where he disappeared into a tower under the
protection of a strong guard. Meanwhile the return of the courier with
the decree of the Elector had aroused fresh alarm in the city. For the
Saxon government, to which the citizens of Dresden had made direct
application in an urgent petition, refused to permit the Squire to
sojourn in the electoral capital before the incendiary had been
captured. The Governor was instructed rather to use all the power at
his command to protect the Squire just where he was, since he had to
stay somewhere, but in order to pacify the good city of Wittenberg,
the inhabitants were informed that a force of five hundred men under
the command of Prince Friedrich of Meissen was already on the way to
protect them from further molestation on the part of Kohlhaas.

The Governor saw clearly that a decree of this kind was wholly
inadequate to pacify the people. For not only had several small
advantages gained by the horse-dealer in skirmishes outside the city
sufficed to spread extremely disquieting rumors as to the size to
which his band had grown; his way of waging warfare with ruffians in
disguise who slunk about under cover of darkness with pitch, straw,
and sulphur, unheard of and quite without precedent as it was, would
have rendered ineffectual an even larger protecting force than the one
which was advancing under the Prince of Meissen. After reflecting a
short time, the Governor determined therefore to suppress altogether
the decree he had received; he merely posted at all the street corners
a letter from the Prince of Meissen, announcing his arrival. At
daybreak a covered wagon left the courtyard of the knight's prison and
took the road to Leipzig, accompanied by four heavily armed troopers
who, in an indefinite sort of way, let it be understood that they were
bound for the Pleissenburg. The people having thus been satisfied on
the subject of the ill-starred Squire, whose existence seemed
identified with fire and sword, the Governor himself set out with a
force of three hundred men to join Prince Friedrich of Meissen. In the
mean time Kohlhaas, thanks to the strange position which he had
assumed in the world, had in truth increased the numbers of his band
to one hundred and nine men, and he had also collected in Jessen a
store of weapons with which he had fully armed them. When informed of
the two tempests that were sweeping down upon him, he decided to go to
meet them with the speed of the hurricane before they should join to
overwhelm him. In accordance with this plan he attacked the Prince of
Meissen the very next night, surprising him near Mühlberg. In this
fight, to be sure, he was greatly grieved to lose Herse, who was
struck down at his side by the first shots but, embittered by this
loss, in a three-hour battle he so roughly handled the Prince of
Meissen, who was unable to collect his forces in the town, that at
break of day the latter was obliged to take the road back to Dresden,
owing to several severe wounds which he had received and the complete
disorder into which his troops had been thrown. Kohlhaas, made
foolhardy by this victory, turned back to attack the Governor before
the latter could learn of it, fell upon him at midday in the open
country near the village of Damerow, and fought him until nightfall,
with murderous losses, to be sure, but with corresponding success.
Indeed, the next morning he would certainly with the remnant of his
band have renewed the attack on the Governor, who had thrown himself
into the churchyard at Damerow, if the latter had not received
through spies the news of the defeat of the Prince at Mühlberg and
therefore deemed it wiser to return to Wittenberg to await a more
propitious moment.

Five days after the dispersion of these two bodies of troops, Kohlhaas
arrived before Leipzig and set fire to the city on three different
sides. In the mandate which he scattered broadcast on this occasion he
called himself "a vicegerent of the archangel Michael who had come to
visit upon all who, in this controversy, should take the part of the
Squire, punishment by fire and sword for the villainy into which the
whole world was plunged." At the same time, having surprised the
castle at Lützen and fortified himself in it, he summoned the people
to join him and help establish a better order of things. With a sort
of insane fanaticism the mandate was signed: "Done at the seat of our
provisional world government, our ancient castle at Lützen."

As the good fortune of the inhabitants of Leipzig would have it, the
fire, owing to a steady rain which was falling, did not spread, so
that, thanks to the rapid action of the means at hand for
extinguishing fires, only a few small shops which lay around the
Pleissenburg went up in flames; nevertheless the presence of the
desperate incendiary, and his erroneous impression that the Squire was
in Leipzig, caused unspeakable consternation in the city. When a troop
of one hundred and eighty men at arms that had been sent against him
returned defeated, nothing else remained for the city councilors, who
did not wish to jeopardize the wealth of the place, but to bar the
gates completely and set the citizens to keep watch day and night
outside the walls. In vain the city council had declarations posted in
the villages of the surrounding country, with the positive assurance
that the Squire was not in the Pleissenburg. The horse-dealer, in
similar manifestos, insisted that he was in the Pleissenburg and
declared that if the Squire were not there, he, Kohlhaas, would at any
rate proceed as though he were until he should have been told the
name of the place where his enemy was to be found. The Elector,
notified by courier of the straits to which the city of Leipzig was
reduced, declared that he was already gathering a force of two
thousand men and would put himself at their head in order to capture
Kohlhaas. He administered to Sir Otto von Gorgas a severe rebuke for
the misleading and ill-considered artifice to which he had resorted to
rid the vicinity of Wittenberg of the incendiary. Nor can any one
describe the confusion which seized all Saxony, and especially the
electoral capital, when it was learned there that in all the villages
near Leipzig a declaration addressed to Kohlhaas had been placarded,
no one knew by whom, to the effect that "Wenzel, the Squire, was with
his cousins Hinz and Kunz in Dresden."

It was under these circumstances that Doctor Martin Luther, supported
by the authority which his position in the world gave him, undertook
the task of forcing Kohlhaas, by the power of kindly words, back
within the limits set by the social order of the day. Building upon an
element of good in the breast of the incendiary, he had posted in all
the cities and market-towns of the Electorate a placard addressed to
him, which read as follows:

"Kohlhaas, thou who claimest to be sent to wield the sword of justice,
what is it that thou, presumptuous man, art making bold to attempt in
the madness of thy stone-blind passion - thou who art filled from head
to foot with injustice? Because the sovereign, to whom thou art
subject, has denied thee thy rights - thy rights in the struggle for a
paltry trifle - thou arisest, godless man, with fire and sword, and
like a wolf of the wilderness dost burst upon the peaceful community
which he protects. Thou, who misleadest men with this declaration full
of untruthfulness and guile, dost thou think, sinner, to satisfy God
therewith in that future day which shall shine into the recesses of
every heart? How canst thou say that thy rights have been denied
thee - thou, whose savage breast, animated by the inordinate desire
for base revenge, completely gave up the endeavor to procure justice
after the first half-hearted attempts, which came to naught? Is a
bench full of constables and beadles who suppress a letter that is
presented, or who withhold a judgment that they should deliver - is
this thy supreme authority? And must I tell thee, impious man, that
the supreme authority of the land knows nothing whatever about thine
affair - nay, more, that the sovereign against whom thou art rebelling
does not even know thy name, so that when thou shalt one day come
before the throne of God thinking to accuse him, he will be able to
say with a serene countenance, 'I have done no wrong to this man,
Lord, for my soul is ignorant of his existence.' Know that the sword
which thou wieldest is the sword of robbery and bloodthirstiness. A
rebel art thou, and no warrior of the righteous God; wheel and gallows
are thy goal on earth - gallows and, in the life to come, damnation
which is ordained for crime and godlessness.

Wittenberg, etc. MARTIN LUTHER."

When Sternbald and Waldmann, to their great consternation, discovered
the placard which had been affixed to the gateway of the castle at
Lützen during the night, Kohlhaas within the castle was just revolving
in his distracted mind a new plan for the burning of Leipzig - for he
placed no faith in the notices posted in the villages announcing that
Squire Wenzel was in Dresden, since they were not signed by any one,
let alone by the municipal council, as he had required. For several
days the two men hoped in vain that Kohlhaas would perceive Luther's
placard, for they did not care to approach him on the subject. Gloomy
and absorbed in thought, he did indeed, in the evening, appear, but
only to give his brief commands, and he noticed nothing. Finally one
morning, when he was about to have two of his followers strung up for
plundering in the vicinity against his express orders, Sternbald and
Waldmann determined to call his attention to it. With the pomp which
he had adopted since his last manifesto - a large cherubim's sword on
a red leather cushion, ornamented with golden tassels, borne before
him, and twelve men with burning torches following him - Kohlhaas was
just returning from the place of execution, while the people on both
sides timidly made way for him. At that moment the two men, with their
swords under their arms, walked, in a way that could not fail to
excite his surprise, around the pillar to which the placard was

When Kohlhaas, sunk in thought and with his hands folded behind his
back, came under the portal, he raised his eyes and started back in
surprise, and as the two men at sight of him drew back respectfully,
he advanced with rapid steps to the pillar, watching them
absent-mindedly. But who can describe the storm of emotion in his soul
when he beheld there the paper accusing him of injustice, signed by
the most beloved and honored name he knew - the name of Martin Luther!
A dark flush spread over his face; taking off his helmet he read the
document through twice from beginning to end, then walked back among
his men with irresolute glances as though he were about to speak, yet
said nothing. He unfastened the paper from the pillar, read it through
once again, and cried, "Waldmann! have my horse saddled!" - then,
"Sternbald, follow me into the castle!" and with that he disappeared.
It had needed but these few words of that godly man to disarm him
suddenly in the midst of all the dire destruction that he was

He threw on the disguise of a Thuringian farmer and told Sternbald
that a matter of the greatest importance obliged him to go to
Wittenberg. In the presence of some of his most trustworthy men he
turned over to Sternbald the command of the band remaining in Lützen,
and with the assurance that he would be back in three days, during
which time no attack was to be feared, he departed for Wittenberg. He
put up at an inn under an assumed name, and at nightfall, wrapped in
his cloak and provided with a brace of pistols which he had taken at
the sack of Tronka Castle, entered Luther's room. When Luther, who
was sitting at his desk with a mass of books and papers before him,
saw the extraordinary stranger enter his room and bolt the door behind
him, he asked who he was and what he wanted. The man, who was holding
his hat respectfully in his hand, had no sooner, with a diffident
presentiment of the terror that he would cause, made answer that he
was Michael Kohlhaas, the horse-dealer, than Luther cried out, "Stand
far back from me!" and rising from the desk added, as he hurried
toward a bell, "Your breath is pestilence, your presence destruction!"

Without stirring from the spot Kohlhaas drew his pistol and said,
"Most reverend Sir, if you touch the bell this pistol will stretch me
lifeless at your feet! Sit down and hear me. You are not safer among
the angels, whose psalms you are writing down, than you are with me."

Luther sat down and asked, "What do you want?" Kohlhaas answered, "I
wish to refute the opinion you have of me, that I am an unjust man!
You told me in your placard that my sovereign knows nothing about my
case. Very well; procure me a safe-conduct and I will go to Dresden
and lay it before him."

"Impious and terrible man!" cried Luther, puzzled and, at the same
time, reassured by these words. "Who gave you the right to attack
Squire Tronka in pursuance of a decree issued on your own authority,
and, when you did not find him in his castle, to visit with fire and
sword the whole community which protects him?"

Kohlhaas answered, "Reverend Sir, no one, henceforth. Information
which I received from Dresden deceived and misled me! The war which I
am waging against society is a crime, so long as I haven't been cast
out - and you have assured me that I have not."

"Cast out!" cried Luther, looking at him. "What mad thoughts have
taken possession of you? Who could have cast you out from the
community of the state in which you lived? Indeed where, as long as
states have existed, has there ever been a case of any one, no matter
who, being cast out of such a community?"

"I call that man cast out," answered Kohlhaas, clenching his fist, "who
is denied the protection of the laws. For I need this protection, if
my peaceable business is to prosper. Yes, it is for this that, with
all my possessions, I take refuge in this community, and he who denies
me this protection casts me out among the savages of the desert; he
places in my hand - how can you try to deny it? - the club with which to
protect myself."

"Who has denied you the protection of the laws?" cried Luther. "Did I
not write you that your sovereign, to whom you addressed your
complaint, has never heard of it? If state-servants behind his back
suppress lawsuits or otherwise trifle with his sacred name without his
knowledge, who but God has the right to call him to account for
choosing such servants, and are you, lost and terrible man, entitled
to judge him therefor?"

"Very well," answered Kohlhaas, "if the sovereign does not cast me out
I will return again to the community which he protects. Procure for
me, I repeat it, safe-conduct to Dresden; then I will disperse the
band of men that I have collected in the castle at Lützen and I will
once again lay my complaint, which was rejected, before the courts of
the land."

With an expression of vexation, Luther tossed in a heap the papers
that were lying on his desk, and was silent. The attitude of defiance
which this singular man had assumed toward the state irritated him,
and reflecting upon the judgment which Kohlhaas had issued at
Kohlhaasenbrück against the Squire, he asked what it was that he
demanded of the tribunal at Dresden. Kohlhaas answered, "The
punishment of the Squire according to the law; restoration of the
horses to their former condition; and compensation for the damages
which I, as well as my groom Herse, who fell at Mühlberg, have
suffered from the outrage perpetrated upon us."

Luther cried, "Compensation for damages! Money by the thousands, from
Jews and Christians, on notes and securities, you have borrowed to
defray the expenses of your wild revenge! Shall you put that amount
also on the bill when it comes to reckoning up the costs?"

"God forbid!" answered Kohlhaas. "House and farm and the means that I
possessed I do not demand back, any more than the expenses of my
wife's funeral! Herse's old mother will present the bill for her son's
medical treatment, as well as a list of those things which he lost at
Tronka Castle; and the loss which I suffered on account of not selling
the black horses the government may have estimated by an expert."

Luther exclaimed, as he gazed at him, "Mad, incomprehensible, and
amazing man! After your sword has taken the most ferocious revenge
upon the Squire which could well be imagined, what impels you to
insist upon a judgment against him, the severity of which, when it is
finally pronounced, will fall so lightly upon him?"

Kohlhaas answered, while a tear rolled down his cheek, "Most reverend
Sir! It has cost me my wife; Kohlhaas intends to prove to the world
that she did not perish in an unjust quarrel. Do you, in these
particulars, yield to my will and let the court of justice speak; in
all other points that may be contested I will yield to you."

Luther said, "See here, what you demand is just, if indeed the
circumstances are such as is commonly reported; and if you had only
succeeded in having your suit decided by the sovereign before you
arbitrarily proceeded to avenge yourself, I do not doubt that your
demands would have been granted, point for point. But, all things
considered, would it not have been better for you to pardon the Squire
for your Redeemer's sake, take back the black horses, thin and
worn-out as they were, and mount and ride home to Kohlhaasenbrück to
fatten them in your own stable?"

Kohlhaas answered, "Perhaps!" Then, stepping to the window, "Perhaps
not, either! Had I known that I should be obliged to set them on
their feet again with blood from the heart of my dear wife, I might,
reverend Sir, perhaps have done as you say and not have considered a
bushel of oats! But since they have now cost me so dear, let the
matter run its course, say I; have judgment be pronounced as is due
me, and have the Squire fatten my horses for me."

Turning back to his papers with conflicting thoughts, Luther said that
he would enter into negotiations with the Elector on his behalf; in
the mean time let him remain quietly in the castle at Lützen. If the
sovereign would consent to accord him free-conduct, they would make
the fact known to him by posting it publicly. "To be sure," he
continued, as Kohlhaas bent to kiss his hand, "whether the Elector
will be lenient, I do not know, for I have heard that he has collected
an army and is about to start out to apprehend you in the castle at
Lützen; however, as I have already told you, there shall be no lack of
effort on my part" - and, as he spoke, he got up from his chair
prepared to dismiss him. Kohlhaas declared that Luther's intercession
completely reassured him on that point, whereupon Luther bowed to him
with a sweep of his hand. Kohlhaas, however, suddenly sank down on one
knee before him and said he had still another favor to ask of him - the
fact was, that at Whitsuntide, when it was his custom to receive the
Holy Communion, he had failed to go to church on account of this
warlike expedition of his. Would Luther have the goodness to receive
his confession without further preparation and, in exchange,
administer to him the blessed Holy Sacrament? Luther, after reflecting
a short time, scanned his face, and said, "Yes, Kohlhaas, I will do
so. But the Lord, whose body you desire, forgave his enemy. Will you
likewise," he added, as the other looked at him disconcerted, "forgive
the Squire who has offended you? Will you go to Tronka Castle, mount
your black horses, ride them back to Kohlhaasenbrück and fatten them

"Your Reverence!" said Kohlhaas flushing, and seized his hand -


"Even the Lord did not forgive all his enemies. Let me forgive the
Elector, my two gentlemen the castellan and the steward, the lords
Hinz and Kunz, and whoever else may have injured me in this affair;
but, if it is possible, suffer me to force the Squire to fatten my
black horses again for me."

At these words Luther turned his back on him, with a displeased
glance, and rang the bell. In answer to the summons an amanuensis came
into the anteroom with a light, and Kohlhaas, wiping his eyes, rose
from his knees disconcerted; and since the amanuensis was working in
vain at the door, which was bolted, and Luther had sat down again to
his papers, Kohlhaas opened the door for the man. Luther glanced for
an instant over his shoulder at the stranger, and said to the
amanuensis, "Light the way!" whereupon the latter, somewhat surprised
at the sight of the visitor, took down from the wall the key to the
outside door and stepped back to the half-opened door of the room,
waiting for the stranger to take his departure. Kohlhaas, holding his
hat nervously in both hands, said, "And so, most reverend Sir, I
cannot partake of the benefit of reconciliation, which I solicited of

Luther answered shortly, "Reconciliation with your Savior - no! With
the sovereign - that depends upon the success of the attempt which I
promised you to make." And then he motioned to the amanuensis to carry
out, without further delay, the command he had given him. Kohlhaas
laid both hands on his heart with an expression of painful emotion,

Online LibraryUnknownThe German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 04 Masterpieces of German Literature Translated into English. in Twenty Volumes → online text (page 27 of 38)