Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Setting

By Bertolt Brecht


Seventeenth-Century Europe (The Thirty Years' War)

What is the Thirty Years' War, anyway?

Well, for starters, it was a very, very long war, lasting from 1618 to 1648. Can you imagine if World War II, or the Vietnam War, or any other war in recent memory, had lasted for thirty years? Imagine being born, raised, going to high school, and heading off to college, then getting your first job, meeting Mr. or Ms. Right, settling down—all while a war raged in the background. Of course, the Thirty Years' War was one of the bloodiest wars in European history, so you probably wouldn't have lasted that long yourself.

The Thirty Years' War began as a war between Catholics and Protestants, two major Christian denominations. After Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the resulting split in the Christian church created some serious leadership problems for the Holy Roman Empire, which included much of Central Europe and all of modern-day Germany. The Protestants didn't think they should obey the Pope anymore, which meant they were a direct threat to the political structure of the Holy Roman Empire, which relied on the Pope to crown its emperors.

Eventually, the leaders of various European countries started taking sides against one another and vied for continental dominance. Though the war still had a lot to do with religious faith, political and economic power were just as important to these guys. The ensuing mayhem spread illness and famine, drastically reducing the population in much of Europe.

Mother Courage starts out in Dalecarlia, a province in Sweden. It's 1624, six years since the start of the war. The Swedish Empire, a Protestant superpower at the time, is recruiting soldiers to enter the war down south. Mother Courage ends up following the Swedish army through Poland, before the Catholics capture the regiment and Courage switches sides.

She follows the Catholic army, lead by General Tilly, and later the Protestants again, through a number of regions in the historic Holy Roman Empire: Moravia (part of Czech Republic), Bavaria (a region of Germany), and other parts of modern-day Germany. The play concludes in 1636, still twelve years before the war ends.

Now fast-forward to 1939: Brecht is writing Mother Courage while exiled in Sweden. The Holy Roman Empire is long gone. The National Socialist Party, also known as the Nazis, has come to power in Germany, Brecht's home country. Brecht has opted to leave Germany, rather than face Nazi censorship, or something even worse.

No one knows when or if the war will end, nor can anyone predict the atrocities that will be committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. At the time, Brecht is probably not the only one to think that his war might last just as long, involve as many countries, and be just as bloody as the Thirty Years' War. He has no idea how bad it has yet to become.