Benjamin, Walter
  Bismarck, Otto v.
  Brecht, Bertolt
  Celan, Paul
  Döblin, Alfred
  Fontane, Theodor
  Grosz, George
  Grünbein, Durs
  Heartfield, John
  Honigmann, Barbara
  Isherwood, Christopher
  Johnson, Uwe
  Kleist, Heinrich v.
  Kollwitz, Käthe
  Kracauer, Siegfried
  Lang, Fritz
  Lasker-Schüler, Else
  Liebermann, Max
  Liebknecht, Karl
  Luxemburg, Rosa
  Marc, Franz
  Ossietzky, Carl v.
  Riefenstahl, Leni
  Ruttmann, Walther
  Schinkel, Karl Friedrich
  Speer, Albert
  Tieck, Ludwig
  Tucholsky, Kurt
  Ury, Lesser
  Varnhagen, Rahel
  Wenders, Wim


Kleist, (Bernd) Heinrich (Wilhelm) von

Bio Part 1 Bio Part 2 Works Resources & Credits

Heinrich v. Kleist. Drawing by Wilhelmina v. Zenge, 1801

b. Oct. 18, 1777, Frankfurt an der Oder, Brandenburg
d. Nov. 21, 1811, Wannsee

the first of the great German dramatists of the 19th century. Poets of the Realist, Expressionist, Nationalist and Existentialist movements in France and Germany all saw their prototype in Kleist, a poet whose genius had foreseen modern problems of life and literature.


Kleist was born Oct. 18, 1777 in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. He was the oldest of eight children in the family of a military officer, Joachim Friedrich von Kleist, and his second wife, Juliane Ulrike, née von Pannwitz. He received his education at home from a tutor Christian Ernst Martini. In 1788, after his father's death, Kleist's mother petitioned the king for a pension, and in 1789 for her son's admission to the military academy. Neither of her requests was granted. Heinrich was raised in the house of the Huguenot preacher Samuel Heinrich Cartel in Berlin and attended a French school.

In 1792 Kleist joined the Potsdam Guard Regiment. He took part in the Rhein campaign in 1796 and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1797. Having grown up in military surroundings that were distasteful to him, Kleist was dissatisfied with the career of an army officer, which had been chosen for him, and in 1799 voluntarily resigned his commission after "the loss of seven valuable years." For a time he studied law and mathematics in Frankfurt (1799-1800), but his reading of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant destroyed his faith in the value of knowledge. Despairing of reason, he decided to place his trust in emotion. The conflict between them remained unresolved, however, and lies at the heart of his work.

In 1800 Kleist became engaged to Wilhelmine von Zenge. In 1801, after his so called "Kant-Krise" (Kant crisis) he abandoned his studies and traveled to Switzerland, Weimar and Paris. In Weimar (November-December 1802) he lived in Wieland's house and met Goethe and Schiller. The same year he broke his engagement with Wilhelmine. In Switzerland Kleist wrote his first work, the tragedy Die Familie Schroffenstein (1803; "The Schroffenstein Family"), which depicts pathological states with ruthless clarity. Underlying this drama of error is Kleist's recurring theme, the fallibility of human perception and the inability of the human intellect by itself to apprehend truth. The same year he suffered a severe physical and emotional crisis and contemplated suicide. At this time Kleist was also working on the unfinished play Robert Guiskard, an extremely ambitious work in which he attempted to unite ancient Sophoclean tragedy and the Shakespearean drama of character. He set out on a new journey and in Paris, overcome by despair, burned his manuscript of Guiskard (though he partially rewrote it later) and tried to volunteer for the French army. Expelled from France, he traveled to East Prussia and applied for a civil-service post in Königsberg. He resigned during training, however, and left for Dresden, where he hoped to continue writing, but was arrested by the French and imprisoned for six months as a spy.