From Idealism to Bloody Murder – The Question of Democracy between Michael Kohlhaas and Samuel Zborowski Cover Image

Vom Idealismus zur Mordlust – die Demokratiefrage zwischen Michael Kohlhaas und Samuel Zborowski
From Idealism to Bloody Murder – The Question of Democracy between Michael Kohlhaas and Samuel Zborowski

Author(s): Marek Szałagiewicz
Subject(s): Studies of Literature, Political history, Pre-WW I & WW I (1900 -1919), Peace and Conflict Studies
Published by: Verlag Herder-Institut
Keywords: Idealism; Bloody Murder; Question of Democracy; Michael Kohlhaas; Samuel Zborowski;

Summary/Abstract: The historical figures Hans Kohlhase and Samuel Zborowski form the basis for two topoi that have, despite cultural and social differences, something in common. Both the title character of Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas and Samuel Zborowski, the protagonist in Juliusz Słowacki’s last published drama personify the radicalism of thought that underlies the European utopian idealism. Kohlhaas, a horse merchant from Brandenburg, is deceived by the Junker Wenzel von Tronka into leaving his two horses as collateral for an illegal transit document. Tronka’s family connections prevent Kohlhaas from finding justice and the latter thus decides to seek justice on his own and at any price. He begins a private war with Tronka, which escalates beyond control. Zborowski, a polish military commander and member of a signifycant noble family, attacks a nobleman who offended him and badly wounds another nobleman trying to mediate the conflict as a result. The incident takes place during a tournament in honour of the newly elected Kind of Poland. This leads to Zborowski being banished. He flees Poland and joins the court of Stefan Batory, the Prince of Transylvania. When Batory later becomes King of Poland, Zborowski returns to Poland despite his outlaw status. Together with his brother he starts a plot against the life of the king, in whom he sees a threat to the freedom of the nobility. Before he manages to realize these plans he is arrested and executed. Despite all the cultural, historical and social differences, there are several commonalities between the two figures. Both the title character from Kleist’s novella, as well as the protagonist of Slowacki’s drama embody a radicality of thought that has its source in European utopian idealism. Kohlhaas and Zborowski act with an unshakeable belief in the correctness of their views; an attitude that conflicts with the compromise-orientated approach inherent to the political system of democracy. Thus, the both characters were often misappropriated in literature or journalism by radical, anti-democratic demagogues, especially in the days before and after World War I. But while the radical attitudes of Kohlhaas and Zborowski are prone to escalation, the subversive power of radicalism gives each revolution intended to realize utopian ideals its own dynamic that leads to the revolution ending in a bloodbath instead of a utopia. Both figures represent not only a ruthless idealism willing to accept anything, including murder, as long as it leads to the realization of the postulated ideals. The stories of both figures may also be understood as paradigmatic examples for the dynamic of violence. Violence, once set in motion, can escalate to an unimaginable extent and become a purpose in and of itself, even if it was initially unleashed only in the name of a supreme ideal. Authors who have taken up the subject matter and tried to adapt its ideology seem to be aware of this phenomenon and, although they use the radicalism of Kohlhaas or Zborowski for their own purposes, they always maintain a certain distance from the characters. The literary adaptation of the two historical rebels and their fate reveals the logical contradiction of utopian idealism. The totalitarian claims of the ideal can escalate such that – paradoxically – it finally demands abandoning the ideal for its own sake.

  • Issue Year: 64/2015
  • Issue No: 2
  • Page Range: 264-289
  • Page Count: 26
  • Language: German