1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kohlhase, Hans

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KOHLHASE, HANS, a German historical figure about whose personality some controversy exists. He is chiefly known as the hero of Heinrich von Kleist’s novel, Michael Kohlhaas. He was a merchant, and not, as some have supposed, a horsedealer, and he lived at Kölln in Brandenburg. In October 1532, so the story runs, whilst proceeding to the fair at Leipzig, he was attacked and his horses were taken from him by the servants of a Saxon nobleman, one Günter von Zaschwitz. In consequence of the delay the merchant suffered some loss of business at the fair and on his return he refused to pay the small sum which Zaschwitz demanded as a condition of returning the horses. Instead Kohlhase asked for a substantial amount of money as compensation for his loss, and failing to secure this he invoked the aid of his sovereign, the elector of Brandenburg. Finding however that it was impossible to recover his horses, he paid Zaschwitz the sum required for them, but reserved to himself the right to take further action. Then unable to obtain redress in the courts of law, the merchant, in a Fehdebrief, threw down a challenge, not only to his aggressor, but to the whole of Saxony. Acts of lawlessness were soon attributed to him, and after an attempt to settle the feud had failed, the elector of Saxony, John Frederick I., set a price upon the head of the angry merchant. Kohlhase now sought revenge in earnest. Gathering around him a band of criminals and of desperadoes he spread terror throughout the whole of Saxony; travellers were robbed, villages were burned and towns were plundered. For some time the authorities were practically powerless to stop these outrages, but in March 1540 Kohlhase and his principal associate, Georg Nagelschmidt, were seized, and on the 22nd of the month they were broken on the wheel in Berlin.

The life and fate of Kohlhase are dealt with in several dramas. See Burkhardt, Der historische Hans Kohlhase und H. von Kleists Michael Kohlhaas (Leipzig, 1864).