Michael Kohlhaas, a 19th-century novella by Heinrich von Kleist, reminds the Israeli and U.S. right that lust for vengeance is a terrible idea
The settler youth currently busy setting things on fire across the West Bank aren’t big readers. Instead of curling up with a good book, they’d rather engage in more virile pastimes, like vandalizing the homes of their ideological nemeses or smashing senior IDF officers in the face with bricks. Their facility with words is limited to taglines, and the one they chose to describe their recent spree of arsons and beatings is “price tag,” as in making others pay for any infraction, real or perceived, against unquestioned Jewish control over Judea and Samaria. But we’re not too far removed from New Year’s Eve and its customary resolutions to offer another one for the list: This year, the young brutes should read Michael Kohlhaas.
Written in 1811 by Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas has many charms that make it a thoroughly attractive read for contemporary audiences. But even if they don’t care much for its existentialism avant la lettre or its incisive psychological portraits, the rioting settlers might appreciate the work’s main theme: revenge.
Loosely based on real-life events, this novella tells the story of a wealthy horse-dealer who, having failed to obtain justice in court against a cruel and well-connected aristocrat, raises a private army and embarks on a violent crusade before being apprehended and executed. The novella’s emotional crescendo arrives when Martin Luther, in an attempt to stop Kohlhaas’ madness, writes him a scathing letter: “You who say you are sent to wield the sword of justice,” roars the father of the Reformation, “what are you doing, presumptuous man, in the madness of your blind fury, you who are yourself filled with injustice from head to foot? Because the sovereign to whom you owe obedience had denied you your rights, rights in a quarrel over a miserable possession, you rise up, wretch, with fire and sword and, like a wolf of the desert, descend on the peaceful community he protects.”
Most readers are likely to identify with Luther’s scolding and yet still feel even stronger sympathy for Kohlhaas. Like him, we want to believe that justice is absolute, and that we have the right to pursue it to the very end, earthly consequences be damned. Naturally enamored with this theme, Franz Kafka devoted one of the only two public talks he gave to reading segments of Kohlhaas, and he confessed that he could not think of the novella “without being moved to tears and enthusiasm.”
Such were von Kleist’s powers that, writing at the cradle of modernity, he had already detected that vengeance would become the chief sentiment guiding the new age of man. With Luther having loosened the cornerstones of the church, and with the Enlightenment following suit and gilding “the natural and imprescriptible rights of man,” the individual was left with nothing much greater than himself to revere. And with justice newly rooted in the social contract or judged on the scale of actions and their consequences, a hard man like Kohlhaas—searching for justice in its former transcendent seats, the church and the state, and finding both small and tattered—was bound to slip into vengeance. Writing not long after von Kleist, Hegel called revenge “a positive action of a particular will,” by which he meant to say that anyone who, like Michael Kohlhaas or the settler youth, embarked on a campaign of retribution in the name of some exalted, religious ideal was bound to discover that they were really pursuing the narrowest of private interests.
It’s one of those sweet paradoxes that make life so rich and strange: If you truly believe in justice, you know that its origins—like the origins of love and faith and mercy and mirth and valor and hate—are divine, and that it is therefore, in its pure form, largely unknowable to us. If we turn any one of these emotions into the singular banner under which we march, we’re bound to become, like poor Kohlhaas, doomed and distasteful fanatics.
It is a testament to the impoverishment of our time that we too mindlessly brand many of those who follow in Kohlhaas’ steps as conservatives. From lawless Israeli settlers dedicated to erecting a theocratic kingdom to listless U.S. Republicans devoted to little more than dethroning President Barack Obama, the right everywhere nowadays seems to be primarily about revenge. Often, this sentiment is excused as serving some sort of greater good, but von Kleist knew better: Revenge is always personal.
Which, in part, explains why so many in Israel and the United States now observe the right wing with bafflement. Conservatives, we were told by commentators from Edmund Burke forward, value the well-being of society over the grievances of individuals, and they champion slow processes over tempestuous eruptions. But instead we are now plagued with a twisted ideology that is willing to lay waste all that we share and cherish in the service of absolutist fantasies that can be achieved only once real or imagined slights are punished.
If we can learn anything from Michael Kohlhaas, it is that modernity needs an antidote to vengeance. And we can find that in Judaism.
Observed as it was written and practiced for millennia—a version radically different from the bastardized form now practiced by the chauvinistic maniacs who make up the vanguard of the settlers’ movement—Judaism is as clear as it can be on the subject of revenge. It understood, long before John Stuart Mill, that men see only consequences; asking them to turn the other cheek won’t do much good if they’re denied what they believe to be their fair share of the pie. To that end, Judaism largely prefers concrete systems of laws to ephemeral ideas like forgiveness and good will. Paul’s declaration that Christ is the end of the law, then, is, in some ways, a misguided criticism of Judaism: Rather than choosing law over love, Judaism knows that the former is impossible without the latter because human beings, left unfettered, will eventually turn all relations into contests of will. To keep them from hearing voices and embarking on crusades for what they imagine to be celestial causes, they need to be fenced in by rules.
Which makes von Kleist’s book urgent reading: Anyone who thinks that revenge is a good political, moral, militaristic, or economic strategy is welcome to check out how well the same philosophy worked for Michael Kohlhaas.
Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel The Chosen, about Jewish teenagers in Brooklyn, is no less inscrutable for adults than it has been for generations of young readers