War Benefits No One
The impact of war on people’s lives and the lengths to which people go to survive, as presented in ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’.
During World War II in 1939, Bertolt Brecht—a German playwright and poet—wrote the anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children. Brecht was exiled and created this war drama when he was in Sweden. German actress and writer Margarete Steffin, Brecht’s close collaborator, also made significant contributions to the work. The play features poetic songs that are sung by the characters, like a musical.
The play takes place from 1624 to 1646 during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. A series of conflicts between the Catholic and Protestant states, the Thirty Years’ War was fought from 1618 to 1648. It started out as a religious war but eventually became “more about which group would ultimately govern Europe.”
Mother Courage, whose real name is Anna Fierling, is a canteen woman who follows different troops, from both Catholic and Protestant sides, throughout Europe with her cart and sells supplies and alcohol to soldiers. She brings her three children with her—her daughter Kattrin as well as two sons Eilif and Swiss Cheese (yes, that’s his name).
Although Courage planned for the three children to remain involved in the business, she looses all of them along the way. Eilif gets recruited by the Swedish army and is executed towards the end because of a crime he commits; Swiss Cheese is killed after being caught by Catholic spies who see him with a Protestant money box; and Kattrin dies after being shoot down when she bangs on a drum to warn townspeople of a secret Catholic attack.
Despite each death of her children, Courage focuses on earning a living from her business and continues on with her trek. She did want to protect her children and would even tell Eilif not to fight in the war but, to Courage, making a profit from the war was worth risking her and her children’s lives.
It might seem like Mother Courage is being selfish for prioritizing making a profit over human life, but we shouldn’t blame her for this. There are reasons why someone like Courage would feel that it’s the only viable way to go about living during the war.
Obey The System—Or Go Against it
As someone of a lower class, it’s reasonable for Courage to assume that she has no power over the leaders who waged these conflicts. Compared to them, she’s just one person with no real authority in society. What she is able to do to stop the war is limited.
And with a war that seems to have no end in sight, the future is bleak and many become very hopeless. We see that all of her children die at the hands of the army. None of them have much power when faced with the military, and if people do something that is against the military’s interest then they will be killed. It would seem that there is no good outcome from standing up against the war.
The war has depleted people of hope—following one’s morals would seem pointless. So, Mother Courage is not left with many options. The only way she might be able to benefit is by earning a living—to earn the wealth to keep herself and her children alive. That would appear to be the only way people can survive during the war.
So, even though Courage believes that the leaders are waging wars for their own profits, she also tries to earn a profit from the war through her business.
I mean, there is the saying: if you can’t beat them, join them.
She does care very much about her children and makes many efforts to keep them safe. For instance, when Courage insists that the Swedish recruiter and sergeant leave Eilif alone before he was taken away, or when she tried to sell her cart and use the money to save Swiss Cheese from the Catholic soldiers.
However, she doesn’t have much say against the army, and her will to survive takes over her. The only way for her to survive in this war is to earn money. She could sell her cart to save Swiss Cheese, but then she would lose her entire business. She would not be able to make a profit from the war and thus would no longer have any source of livelihood, for both her and her daughter.
In the first scene, the sergeant tells Courage:
“Like the war to nourish you?
Have to feed it something too” (Brecht).
Her desire to make a living off of the war has eventually led to the loss of her children — it came at the cost of their lives.
Mother Courage is an example of someone who followed the rules of war and submitted to the system. She even sings “The Song of Great Capitulation”—a song about a soldier surrendering himself to the army’s authority. She succumbs to the war by doing the same as the leaders who started the conflict and devastation—to capitalize off of it.
It seems that one can only survive in war by giving into it. But what if you choose not to obey—to stand up for your own moral values against what you know is wrong? Is there really no benefit in fighting against the leaders of a corrupt and destructive movement?
Is there any hope?
Kattrin became mute because of a traumatic experience with a soldier that she experienced as a child. She is referred to as Courage’s “dumb daughter.” Nevertheless, she is the only one who sacrifices herself in order to save the lives of other people.
Courage goes into town for business, leaving Kattrin alone in their cart, which is parked by a peasant’s farm. When Kattrin knew of the Catholic’s secret attack on the town, she alerts the townspeople by climbing on top of the house and banging on a drum. The peasants and soldiers demand her to stop drumming and come down from the house, which she refuses. That is when the soldiers shoot her. Even while she is dying, she continues to drum for as long as she can before she is gone.
Is Kattrin really the “dumb” one?
At the beginning of the play, Courage predicts that Kattrin will die because of her kindness—and she was right. Although she does not benefit from doing so, Kattrin decides to push against the systems of the war, by sacrificing her own life in order to help others.
She knew she would die from her actions against the military, but she still held her ground and did what she believed was the right choice. To go against all odds and uphold your own values, even in the face of death, is an incredibly brave act.
This is not to say that Mother Courage is wrong for profiting off of the war — there are many factors that someone in her position would need to consider, and the situation she was in greatly affected her decisions. It’s understandable why she believed it was in her and her children’s best interests to try and make a living from the war.
But while Mother Courage conforms to the orders of the war, Kattrin resists it. They do the exact opposite—reflecting the ways in which people’s mindsets and reactions to war can have an effect on the crisis.
Kattrin’s selflessness and the actions she took to oppose the military’s attack has saved the lives of many people. Her resistance is not able to stop the war, but it does show that there is a glimpse of hope.
Everybody Loses In War
Brecht’s motto was:
“War teaches people nothing.”
Mother Courage thought she would be able to protect her children and survive during the war by bringing them along with her and her cart, all while trying to make a profit from the conflict. But this was not possible—by the end of the play, she loses her children and still struggles to earn an income from her business. She is a victim of the war—and so are all of her children.
And despite Mother Courage and her daughter Kattrin reacting differently towards the war, none of them benefited in any way.
Everybody loses in war. Even if nations’ leaders try to reap from the conflicts they inflict, devastation to the people as well as the towns and cities are in no way beneficial to anyone. War only promotes destruction—the tearing down of not only physical properties and assets but also the lives of everyone involved.
The consequences of war are catastrophic, but it does not mean that there is no hope. There are still chances for lives to be saved—but that will not happen if we capitulate to those who wage the wars.
War benefits no one. It’s easy to feel helpless during these times, but there are ways to help those affected by conflict. With Russia’s attack on Ukraine, here are some links to resources for supporting the people living in Ukraine and the refugees impacted by the war:
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- Brecht, Bertolt, et al. Mother Courage and Her Children = Mutter Courage Und Ihre Kinder. 1941. Methuen Drama ; Uk, 2009.
- History.com Editors. “Thirty Years’ War.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/reformation/thirty-years-war.
- Shmoop. “Mother Courage and Her Children Introduction | Shmoop.” Www.shmoop.com, www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/mother-courage-and-her-children. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.