Kleist was born into the von Kleist family in Frankfurt an der Oder in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. After a scanty education, he entered the Prussian Army in 1792, served in the Rhine campaign of 1796, and retired from the service in 1799 with the rank of lieutenant. He studied law and philosophy at the Viadrina University and in 1800 received a subordinate post in the Ministry of Finance at Berlin.
In the following year, Kleist's roving, restless spirit got the better of him, and procuring a lengthened leave of absence he visited Paris and then settled in Switzerland. There he found congenial friends in Heinrich Zschokke and
Ludwig Wieland (1777–1819), son of the poet Christoph Martin Wieland; and to them he read his first drama, a gloomy tragedy,
The Schroffenstein Family (1803).
In the autumn of 1802, Kleist returned to Germany; he visited Goethe, Schiller, and Wieland in Weimar, stayed for a while in Leipzig and Dresden, again proceeded to Paris, and returning in 1804 to his post in Berlin was transferred to the Domänenkammer (department for the administration of crown lands) at Königsberg. On a journey to Dresden in 1807, Kleist was arrested by the French as a spy; he remained a close prisoner of France in the Fort de Joux. On regaining his liberty, he proceeded to Dresden, where, in conjunction with Adam Heinrich Müller (1779–1829), he published the journal Phöbus in 1808.
Grave of Kleist and Henriette Vogel at Kleiner Wannsee after renovation in 2011
In 1809 Kleist went to Prague, and ultimately settled in Berlin, where he edited (1810/1811) the
Berliner Abendblätter. Captivated by the intellectual and musical accomplishments of the terminally ill Henriette Vogel(de), Kleist, who was himself more disheartened and embittered than ever, agreed to do her bidding and die with her, carrying out this resolution by first shooting Vogel and then himself on the shore of the Kleiner Wannsee (Little Wannsee) near Potsdam, on 21 November 1811.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, "Kleist's whole life was filled by a restless striving after ideal and illusory happiness, and this is largely reflected in his work. He was by far the most important North German dramatist of the Romantic movement, and no other of the Romanticists approaches him in the energy with which he expresses patriotic indignation."
A life with a plan
In the spring of 1799, the 21-year-old Kleist wrote a letter to his half-sister Ulrike in which he found it "incomprehensible how a human being can live without a plan for his life" (Lebensplan). In effect, Kleist sought and discovered an overwhelming sense of security by looking to the future with a definitive plan for his life. It brought him happiness and assured him of confidence, especially knowing that life without a plan only saw despair and discomfort. The irony of his later suicide has been the fodder of his critics.
Relationship with Henriette Vogel and murder-suicide
Kleist met Henriette Vogel in 1809 through his friend Adam Müller and a friendship flourished between them. They shared a fondness for music, and according to Ernest Peguilhen, Henriette Vogel asked her friend to explain to her the art of war, as well as to teach her fencing, for the dramatist had been a soldier. The relationship between the two became more intimate in the autumn of 1811. According to their contemporaries, there was no fire of passion but a purely spiritual love. It was Adam Müller's point of view, who in fact had been in love with Henriette for a while. Marie von Kleist, who was the most important sponsor and confidant of Heinrich von Kleist, also made sure that this claim was widely spread.
On November 21, 1811, the two traveled from Berlin to Wannsee. Prior to their departure, they both penned farewell letters, which along with an account of the final night they spent at the inn Gasthof Stimming, are now part of world literature. Upon their arrival in the vicinity of the Wannsee in Potsdam, Kleist first shot Henriette and then turned the gun on himself. They were buried together in a common grave at Kleine Wannsee (Bismarckstrasse), which has become a tourist attraction. It was redesigned by the time of the bicentenary of their deaths. On that occasion was built a direct access from the station Wannsee to the grave. The gravestone, erected by the Nazis in 1936, was turned round and now shows an engraved original text written by Max Ring and the Pater Noster's request: "forgive us our guilt" as well as the names and data of Henriette Vogel and Heinrich von Kleist.