Study Guide

Mother Courage and Her Children Warfare

By Bertolt Brecht


MOTHER COURAGE: He's nowt but a child. You want to take him off to slaughterhouse, I know you lot. They'll give you five florins for him. (I, 182-184)

Here are Mother Courage's two main thoughts on war, loud and clear. The first is that her children are innocent and should be spared the war's brutality. The second is that war is a business, one she knows very well. She understands enough to realize the recruiter is just trying to get his cut by recruiting Eilif.

RECRUITER has taken Eilif by the arm and is leading him away up stage: Ten florins bounty money, then you're a gallant fellow fighting for the king and women'll be after you like flies. (I, 323-325)

Gallant, eh? The recruiter tries to lure Eilif into the army with promises of wealth, women, and prestige. What we see here is a wartime economic exchange at work: you join the army, you're promised a bunch of nice things, but what's the price? Well, in Mother Courage, it might just be your life.

THE COOK: […] talk of the king, it cost the king dear trying to give freedom to Germany, what with giving Sweden the salt tax, what cost the poor folk a bit, so I've heard, on top of which he had to have the Germans locked up and drawn and quartered 'cause they wanted to carry on slaving for the emperor. Course the king took a serious view when anybody didn't want to be free. He set out by just trying to project Poland against the bad people, particularly the emperor, then it started to become a habit till he ended up protecting the whole of Germany. They didn't half kick. So the poor old king's had nowt but trouble for all his kindness and expenses, and that's something he had to make up for by taxes of course, which caused bad blood, not that he's let a little matter like that depress him. One thing he had on his side, God's word, that was a help. Because otherwise folk would of been saying he done it all for himself and to make a bit on the side. So he's always had a good conscience, which was the main point. (III, 189-207)

Well, thank goodness for a good conscience. The cook's irony underscores an important Mother Courage equation: waging war equals raising taxes, which means war makes more money for those in charge. The trick, as the cook again ironically suggests, is to convince the taxpayers that the war is for a noble cause.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Seriously: To go by what the big shots say, they're waging war for almighty God and in the name of everything that's good and lovely. But look closer, they ain't so silly, they're waging it for what they can get. Else little folk like me wouldn't be in it at all. (III, 212-217)

And then Mother Courage goes and gets all serious on us. She makes it clear that the "little folk," i.e., the lower classes, get involved in wars for the same reasons that the wagers wage them—to make money. The part about the war being for God or any other capital letter word is just a bunch of talk, according to what she tells us.

MOTHER COURAGE: […] Look, victory and defeat ain't bound to be same for the big shots up top as for them below, not by no means. Can be times the bottom lot find a defeat really pays them. Honour's lost, nowt else. I remember once up in Livonia our general took such a beating from the enemy I got a horse off our baggage train in the confusion, pulled me cart seven months, he did, before we won and they checked up. As a rule you can say victory and defeat both come expensive to us ordinary folk. Best thing for us is when politics get bogged down solid. (III, 340-349)

Here's another idea: wars aren't all about victory and defeat. Sometimes the best thing is when they're going poorly. But in general, Mother Courage says, war is tough no matter whether it's being won or lost. "Winning" or "losing" a war is only a concern for those in charge, who usually aren't the ones doing the fighting.

THE CHAPLAIN: […] Ah, peace. Where is the hole once the cheese has been eaten?

That's deep, Chap. Let's think about that one. If war destroys things, then peace can't mean a return to normal, just like you don't get to keep the holes for later, once you've eaten the cheese. The chaplain implies here that peace itself is not the end of war, but just the end of fighting. War destroys the possibility of peace.

THE CHAPLAIN: I'd say there's peace in war too; it has its peaceful moments. Because war satisfies all requirements, peaceable ones included, they're catered for, and it would simply fizzle out if they weren't. […] No, the war will always find an outlet, mark my words. Why should it ever stop? (VI, 102-120)

Are we scared yet? Okay, well let's imagine if war were able to encompass everything. Imagine if war become so good at providing for our needs that we couldn't live without it. That we would fear its end. Well, the chaplain thinks that's just about where his people are.

THE CHAPLAIN: It's not them I blame. They never went raping back home. The fault lies with those that start wars, it brings humanity's lowest instincts to the surface. (VI, 240-243)

Soldiers occupy a weird position in Mother Courage. They're directly risking their lives for the war, in a way Mother Courage and most of her friends aren't. They're not necessarily profiting off of it. So what motivates them? What accounts for their frequently nasty deeds? Here, the chaplain places the blame on the head honchos in charge of the war. They're only in it for their own good, and don't seem to care if they dehumanize the population along the way.

MOTHER COURAGE: What I call a historic moment is them bashing my daughter over the eye. She's half wrecked already, won't get no husband now, and her so crazy about kids; any road she's only dumb from war, soldier stuffed something in her mouth when she was little. As for Swiss Cheese I'll never see him again, and where Eilif is God alone knows. War be damned. (VI, 279-285)

Now, we know Mother Courage is one of war's biggest fans. But we see a different Mother Courage here than what we're used to. Instead of celebrating war as the source of her livelihood, now she has some pretty harsh words about it. But if you think it stops her from continuing to try to capitalize on the war even after it's killed one of her children, then you're wrong. This is the closest Mother Courage comes to expressing her anger about the ongoing war.

MOTHER COURAGE: I won't have you folk spoiling my war for me. I'm told it kills off the weak, but they're write-off in peacetime too. And war gives its people a better deal.
She sings:

And if you feel your forces fading
You won't be there to share the fruits.
But what is war but private trading
That deals in blood instead of boots?

[…] (VII, 5-12)

Mother Courage hits the height of her career, and she won't let anyone tell her any different. She's done hating on war. But her words definitely sound more chilling than before: war is "private trading / that deals in blood instead of boots." Does Mother Courage acknowledge that she has to accept the loss of her children as a consequence of living off the war?