Mother Courage and Her Children is one of the most famous antiwar dramas in all literature. In 1941, when the play was first performed, Europe was in the midst of World War II. Instead of commenting directly on this war—which, he might have argued, was too overwhelmingly immediate for audiences to judge objectively—Bertolt Brecht chose to set the play during a distant historical period. The Thirty Years’ War, notable for its length (1618-1648), savagery, and moral pointlessness, began as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but whatever sincere religious aims may have been present at the outset were lost by the time the French (a Catholic nation) entered the fray on the side of the Protestants to further their territorial ambitions. To illustrate the savagery of this pointless war, Brecht informs the audience in the introduction to scene 9 that by that point in the war (1634), Germany had lost half of its population.
That war is likely to grind up all who enter it is foreshadowed in the first scene, when Mother Courage argues with the sergeant who is trying to recruit Eilif. There, Mother Courage, who claims to have “second sight,” not only predicts that the sergeant will soon be a corpse but also foresees the death of her three children. Yet if Mother Courage is indeed able to see the doom-filled future, one might well ask, why on earth would she insist on forever trailing along in the army’s wake? In that answer lies the second important theme of the play, inextricable from the first: the interrelationship between war and capitalism.
Brecht was both a pacifist and a communist. War was utterly pointless, he thought, on any grounds except one of profit, and profit is a heinous motive for butchering thousands (or millions) of people. Mother Courage says that she got her name from driving her wagon through a cannon barrage to save fifty loaves of bread. Her indomitable perseverance over the course of the play would surely strike the audience as heroic and admirable if it were not for the fact that she is always driven by avarice. For this desire she eventually loses everything that she cherishes except that which she appears to value most: her wagon.