Heinrich von Kleist 

Portrait of Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist.

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was German poet, dramatist, novelist and journalist. He was born on 18th October 1777 in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany and died on 21st November 1811 in Berlin, Germany.

Major Works

“Die Familie Schroffenstein” (The Schroffenstein Family) (1803)
“Der Zerbrochene Krug” (The Broken Jug) (1808)
“Penthesilea” (1808)
“Das Käthchen von Heilbronn” (Käthchen of Heilbronn) (1808)
“Die Hermannsschlacht” (Hermann’s Battle) (1809)
“Michael Kohlhaas” and “The Marquise of O” (1811)

Biography Timeline

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was born on 18th October 1777 in Frankfurt an der Oder, Part of the Kingdom of Prussia, Germany. 

1792: After a rudimentary education he joins the Prussian Army.

1796: He serves in the Rhine Campaign during the French Revolutionary Wars.

1799: He retires from the army as a lieutenant and enters the Viadrina University in Frankfurt to study law and mathematics but becomes more interested in philosophy, particularly the works of Immanuel Kant.

1800: Disillusioned with studying he gets a job in the Ministry of Finance in Berlin. 

1801: He takes leave of absence and visits Paris and Switzerland where he writes his tragedy “The Schroffenstein Family”. 

1802: During the autumn he returns to Germany and pays a visit to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in Weimar and then moves on to Dresden and Leipzig. He works on the play “Robert Guiskard” which attempts to meld Sophocles and Shakespeare together but it never gets completed and he burns the manuscript before making his way back to Paris. He tries to enlist in the French army but is expelled from France.

1803: He travels to East Prussia and applies for a job in the civil service at Konigsberg. However, disillusioned again, he resigns during training and goes to Dresden to continue writing.

1804: He returns to his post in Berlin and is ironically transferred to the Domänenkammer (department for administering crown lands) at Konigsberg.

1806: He completes the first of his larger philosophical essays, “Uber die Allmaahliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (On the Gradual Production of Thoughts While Speaking) in which he advises people to speak only about what they already understand. 

1807: On a journey to Dresden he is arrested by the French as a spy and is taken as a prisoner to the Fort de Joux in the Jura mountains of France. He spends his time there translating Moliere’s “Amphitryon”. On release after six months he makes his way back to Dresden.

1808: He founds the journal “Phöbus” jointly with the political philosopher Adam Muller. He publishes the tragic drama “Penthesilia” about the queen of the Amazon’s love for Achilles. It was not well received at first but has since become a classic. In March he publishes the one-act comedy in verse “Der Zerbrochene Krug” (The Broken Jug) which gets performed through the influences of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. This also is not successful and sours the relationship between the two men. Inspired by the German feelings rising against Napoleon Bonaparte he writes the patriotic tragedy “Die Hermannsschlacht” (Hermann’s Battle). He also writes the romance “Das Käthchen von Heilbronn” (Käthchen of Heilbronn) which becomes very popular.

1809:  He attempts to found a political periodical calling Germany to arms. Through his friend Adam Müller he meets Henriette Vogel and the two share a love of music. Henriette asks him to explain fencing and the art of war to her. He moves to Prague and then settles in Berlin.

1810: “Das Käthchen von Heilbronn” set in Swabia during the Middle Ages, is performed in Vienna, Graz, and Bamberg but not in Berlin. He becomes editor of the Berliner Abenblatter newspaper for six months but when it ceases publication, he loses his main source of income.

1811: He writes eight novellas, collected under the title of “Erzählungen”.  “Das Erdbeben in Chili” (The Earthquake in Chile), “Michael Kohlhaas” and “Die Marquise von O…”  have become well-known as tales of violence and mystery and “Die Heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik” (St Cecilia, or the Power of Music) is also very powerful. He produces his last drama “Prinz Friedrich von Homburg” (published posthumously). During the Autumn the romance between Henriette and he becomes more pronounced and they both realise that she is dying (of cancer). Henriette begs him to kill her to put her out of her pain. He himself is now disappointed with life and embittered by his lack of recognition particularly from Goethe and decides that suicide is his only option. They both write farewell letters and spend time together at the inn Gasthof Stimming. Then on 21st November they set out from Berlin to nearby Wannsee.

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist died on 21st November 1811 on the shore of Lake Wannsee, near Berlin, Germany. First he shot Henriette and then turned the gun on himself. They were buried together in a common grave at Kleine Wannsee (Bismarckstrasse), which soon became a tourist attraction. (Ludwig Tieck published some of his works posthumously in 1821 as Hinterlassene Schriften which contains one of his best-known works “Prinz Friedrich von Homburg. oder die Schlacht bei Fehrbellin” (The Prince of Homburg, or the Battle of Fehrbellin).