Biography

1777 Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was born in Frankfurt an der Oder on 18th October (according to an entry in the garrison church register; he himself always gave his date of birth as 10th October). He was the oldest son of staff sergeant, later major Joachim Friedrich von Kleist and his second wife Juliane Ulrike, nee von Pannwitz. Of his six brothers and sisters, two sisters (Wilhelmine and Ulrike) came from his father’s first marriage. Heinrich von Kleist received his first lessons from a private tutor – theologian and later the headmaster of Frankfurt’s secondary school, Christian Ernst Martini (1762-1833).

1788 Death of Kleist’s father on 18th June. Kleist was taught by preacher Samuel Heinrich Catel (1758-1838) in Berlin, among others.

1792 On 1st June Kleist was admitted as a lance-corporal to the battalion of the Regimental Guards 15b in Potsdam. He was confirmed in Frankfurt an der Oder on 20th June.

1793 Death of Kleist’s mother on 3rd February. At the beginning of March, Kleist travelled to Frankfurt am Main, where his regiment had been transferred in order to participate in the Rhineland campaign against France.

1795 In April a separate peace was agreed between France and Prussia in Basel. On 14th May Kleist was promoted to the rank of junior officer ensign (Portepeefähnrich). On 11th July the Regimental Guards returned to Potsdam.

1797 On 7th March Kleist became a second lieutenant.

1798 Kleist took lessons in German and mathematics together with his regimental comrade Rühle von Lilienstern (1780-1847). Their teacher was Johann Heinrich Ludwig Bauer (1773-1846), deputy headmaster of the “Municipal School” in Potsdam. Kleist played the clarinet in an officers’ quartet (also with Rühle). Kleist was a regular guest in the house of Marie von Kleist, nee Gualtieri (1761-1831), a confidante of the Prussian Queen Luise.

1799 On 4th April Kleist’s application for discharge from military service was granted. On 10th April he matriculated at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, where he studied physics and mathematics, and attended lectures on philosophy, cultural history and natural justice.

1800 At the beginning of the year, Kleist became engaged (unofficially) to Wilhelmine von Zenge (1780-1852), the daughter of a Frankfurt general. In summer he abandoned his studies after three semesters and moved to Berlin to prepare himself for a career in the Prussian civil service. Debate with the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

1801 The so-called “Kant crisis”. Kleist spent time in Paris from July until the end of November. At the end of December he travelled to Basel.

1802 Kleist remained in Switzerland until October. This period marked the beginning of his work as a writer. In May he dissolved his engagement to Wilhelmine von Zenge.

1803 Kleist spent time in Dresden from April to July. Starting out from Dresden, he and his friend Ernst von Pfuel (1779-1866) undertook a journey to Berne, Milan, Geneva and Paris that took until October.

At the end of November, Kleist collapsed in Mainz and was treated by the republican, doctor and writer Georg Wedekind (1761-1831) for several months.

1804 In the first half of the year, Kleist is said to have visited Paris several times. At the beginning of June he returned to Prussia. He wished to train as a Prussian civil servant.

1805 From May onwards Kleist worked under the reformer Hans Jakob von Auerswald (1757-1833) at the regional exchequer in Königsberg and attended lectures in economics and statecraft given by Christian Jakob Kraus (1753-1807).

1806 In August Kleist left the civil service. Napoleon defeated Prussia on 14th October; most of the state was occupied by French forces.

1807 From January to July Kleist was imprisoned by the French in Fort de Joux and Châlons sur Marne. After his release at the end of July, he went to Dresden.

1808 In Dresden Kleist edited the monthly journal “Phöbus. Ein Journal für die Kunst” together with Adam Heinrich Müller (1779-1829), a philosopher and political theorist. He was a frequent guest in the house of Christian Gottfried Körner (1756- 1831). In July Kleist became acquainted with Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853).

1809 Kleist was in Austria from the end of April to October, mainly in Prague. In November he returned to Prussia.

1810 From February onwards, Kleist remained in Berlin permanently. As from 1st October Kleist edited Berlin’s first daily newspaper, the “Berliner Abendblätter”. He experienced conflict with the censors.

1811 The final edition of the “Berliner Abendblätter” appeared on 30th March. Kleist was on friendly terms with the circle of Berlin Romantics (Arnim, Brentano, Fouqué, Rahel Levin) and had contact to reform politicians (Altenstein, Gneisenau). He made desperate attempts to secure a livelihood and to rejoin the Prussian Army. On 21st November he committed suicide by the lake “Kleiner Wannsee” together with Henriette Vogel (born 1780).