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Kleist’s Crime Blotter

January 8, 2013 | by

On the afternoon of October 1, 1810, people started gathering in front of Berlin’s Hedwigskirche, where a new paper would be selling its first issue. By evening the crowd had grown so large that guards were posted to maintain order. The whole city, it seemed, had turned out for the launch of the paper, the Berliner Abendblätter. Even the king had asked for a copy.

Officially, the Abendblätter was edited anonymously. Among the city’s literary elite, however, it was widely known that the paper was written almost single-handedly by Heinrich von Kleist, a young writer. Kleist’s plays and novellas were written with exceptional elegance, but were preoccupied with rape, war, and natural disaster. Kleist had once enjoyed the patronage of Goethe, but after a disastrous theatrical collaboration the two writers found it impossible to continue working together. Goethe admitted that his protégé filled him with revulsion and horror, “as though a body nature had intended to be beautiful were afflicted with an incurable disease.”

Kleist’s involvement in the paper piqued the interest of the literati, but as Kleist well knew, no one ever got rich catering to them. The Abendblätter’s real draw was an insert with police reports provided by Berlin’s chief of police, Herr Gruner. Every day, the public could read about horse tramplings, murders, fires, price-rigging at the local market, and anything else “remarkable or interesting” that had happened in the city. Within hours, the first issue had sold out. After ten days, the Abendblätter was forced to relocate to larger offices.

In his novellas Kleist had already developed a style, at once coldly declarative and hazily subjunctive, that was well suited for reporting the calamities of metropolitan life. The mixture of indifference and alarm that characterizes modern crime reporting is evident, for example, in the Abendblätter’s coverage of several suspicious fires. “In the on-going case of a band of arsonists allegedly setting fire to farms at the edge of town,” reports Kleist, “Seidler the writer, Friedrichstrasse No. 56, received, at that address, a so-called fire letter yesterday, according to whose contents Berlin will be set ablaze at eight points in the next several days.” The allegedly is so unobtrusive that the reader could be forgiven for picturing Berlin reduced to ashes. “Nonetheless,” Kleist adds flatly, “given the vigilance of the highest police authorities, the public need not allow itself any undue worry.”

Kleist’s innovations also included an early version of the crime-tip hotline. Although he routinely sensationalized his reports and ran rumors without attribution, he urged well-meaning citizens to help collar criminals and prevent misdeeds; predictably, police stations were flooded with readers eager to help. After one gang leader was caught by an observant soldier—no thanks to the Abendblätter—Kleist continued to milk the case by “reporting” rumors that members of the gang were still at large.

Kleist’s motives in running—and rewriting—the crime reports were mercenary, but the stories were also philosophical provocations that reflected the pessimistic themes of his work. The most striking cases often ended up in the “Anecdotes” section of the paper, where, without qualifying their claim to factual accuracy, Kleist rewrote them as “fables with no moral.” These cases fit the mold of Kleist’s literary work, dealing with chance, fate, and the inscrutability of the world. In the Abendblätter’s second issue, for example, Kleist tells the story of a worker and a captain stuck under a tree during a storm. The impertinent worker insists that the tree is too small for two, and demands that the captain find another one. As though in direct response to his impertinence, the worker is struck by lightning and killed at the very moment the captain obliges. In another anecdote, Kleist writes about a man who is hospitalized after being run over by a doctor’s coach, for the third time in several years.  The consultant examining him mistakes his crooked, bloody legs, his “burst” left eye, his ribs “turned into his back” for new injuries, only to be informed that they are the result of previous accidents. Flying in the face of plausibility, Kleist writes, “Our reporter interviewed the man himself about the incident and even those mortally sick lying on their beds around him in the ward could not help laughing at his comical and nonchalant way of telling it. Moreover, he is recovering; and so long as he keeps clear of doctors when he goes out on the street he may live a good while yet.”

Kleist’s reports give poetic shape to life’s catastrophes, which are short on catharsis and show little relation between character and fate. Today, as always, tabloids relish the latest “tragedy,” taking the term very far from its classical meaning. In a tabloid, nothing is ever just sad or unlucky; it is tragic, or comic, or marvelously just, and this imparts a reassuring sense of order. Like tabloids, Kleist’s reports favored story over fact; this reflected his philosophical position. During an 1801 crisis brought on by reading too much Kant, Kleist wrote, “We cannot decide whether what we call truth is truly truth or whether it only seems so to us … Since this conviction—that no truth is discoverable here on earth—appeared before my soul I have given up reading.” In the fertile period that followed his Kant crisis, Kleist seems to have found some comfort in the transfiguration of facts into stories, of crimes into “fables without morals.”

Kleist spent his life drifting, often across war zones. He was obsessed with his Lebensplan, or life-plan, and was forever revising it, announcing its new iterations to friends and family. In 1803, he walked from Paris to the coast to join Napoleon’s army, only to be rejected. In 1807, wandering from Berlin to Dresden, he was arrested as a spy and thrown in prison (where he got a lot of writing done). He never felt at home in any city, profession, or literary movement. According to David Constantine, Kleist “was known as somebody who muttered to himself at the dinner table in company.” He was an unsuccessful and unhappy soldier, student, and civil servant before he achieved a measure of success and satisfaction, if not financial security, as a writer.

The Abendblätter folded after just six months, due to a political conflict over one of its publications. Its collapse devastated Kleist, who had hoped that it would become the official newspaper of Prussia and help him to foment a rebellion against the Napoleonic occupation. On November 21, 1811, he shot his terminally ill lover, Henriette Vogel, and then himself, in a suicide pact that was markedly similar to a crime he had once described in the Abendblätter. It was left to others to cover the tragedy.

Michael Lipkin is a student who lives in New York City.

Sophie Pinkham is a student of Russian literature who lives in New York City.

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