No more heroes: microhistory in Brecht’s Mutter Courage

Words: Jack Graveney

The Chaplain: Now they’ll be burying the commander in chief. This is a historic moment.

Mother Courage: What I call a historic moment is them bashing my daughter over the eye.”

In Bertolt Brecht’s poem Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters (Questions from a Worker who Reads), a ‘reading worker’ peruses a stereotypical account of Western history. What he finds does not impress him. His eyes scan the names of kings and generals, their greatest achievements, their most legendary triumphs. But are these victories really theirs? Where are the cooks, the soldiers, the slaves? Surely these ‘great men’ can’t have managed all this on their own?

For the confused reader in Fragen, these questions remain unanswered. Turning to perhaps Brecht’s best-known work, the 1939 play Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children), sheds more light on the matter. Mutter Courage is set in the midst of the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, a chaotic and extremely complex conflict which left eight million dead and much of Europe devastated. What began with a dispute over Bohemian authority within the Holy Roman Empire – in the Defenestration of Prague, Protestant Czechs threw two Catholic Lords Regent and their secretary from the top-floor window of Hradčany Castle – quickly grew into the largest religious war the continent had ever seen. Only the Peace of Westphalia brought (imperfectly and temporarily) some measure of religious and political harmony back to Europe. 

The titular ‘Mother Courage’ is one Anna Fierling, a travelling tradesperson of low means and middling morals, out to make her fortune from the War at any cost. As she (in John Willett’s translation) notes with perverse optimism, ‘Tain’t every day we have a war’. The cost Courage eventually pays – the lives of her three children – leaves the observer in no doubt as to Brecht’s pacifistic and anti-capitalist message. Every scene of the play is marked by the corrosive effect of the capitalist mindset. After introducing herself and her family as ‘business folk’, Fierling’s first song offers an army captain and recruiter a brutally pragmatic sales pitch: ‘How can you flog them into battle / Unless you get them boots that fit?’. This businesswoman is only too aware of the limitations of her wares; she flogs palliation without advertising cure. 

It’s in this self-awareness that some of the play’s tragedy lies. Courage has chosen her way of life as the best of a set of bad options, a choice which comes to consume almost every aspect of her existence. In an especially poignant moment, her son Schweizerkas is executed after she haggles for too long trying to buy back his freedom without losing her beloved wagon. War isn’t a zero-sum game but a costs-benefits analysis, which entangles in obscene quid pro quos items which should never have an exchange rate. Most prophetic is the sergeant’s comment at the close of Scene One: ‘Like the war to nourish you? / Have to feed it something too’.

It isn’t only the barbarisms of war and trade into which Mutter Courage supplies insight. Brecht’s play also fleshes out and exemplifies the understanding of history hinted at in Fragen. This much is clear from the plot’s barest outline. By choosing Fierling as his protagonist instead of one of the War’s ‘big names’ – Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus, Albrecht von Wallenstein, or Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly – Brecht subverts any telling of history which would grant these figures superhuman autonomy and importance. Of course, a play isn’t bound by the conventions or supposed duties of historical writing. It need not strive for accuracy, fairness, or comprehensiveness. But Brecht’s work clearly situates him on a historiographic battleground.

This stance is not merely implicit, in Brecht’s choice of protagonist and theme; it becomes explicit in Mutter Courage’s incisive commentary. What we might dub the ‘cult of heroism’, epitomized by the Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841), receives especially harsh treatment. In his lecture collection, Carlyle makes the case that certain individuals play a disproportionate role in history due to them embodying and enacting fundamental spiritual truths, making world history nothing ‘but the biography of great men’. Courage’s son Eilif, press-ganged at the play’s outset, comes close to articulating this idea when he says of the King that ‘He kind of glows. I’d like to model myself on him’. But Eilif’s mother disabuses him of such misconceptions, suggesting that the function of heroic action is above all compensatory: ‘In decent countries folk don’t have to have virtues, the whole lot can be perfectly ordinary, average intelligence, and for all I know cowards’. Heroism is a state of exception, but an undesirable one, only required by the imperfection of the conditions in which it arises. The need for heroes is an imposition, a delusion: ‘whenever there’s a load of special virtues around it means something stinks’.

Heroism is a state of exception, but an undesirable one, only required by the imperfection of the conditions in which it arises.

Unlike what Carlyle might have you believe, true heroes aren’t steering the grand ship of history into lands of plenty but frantically bailing water from a rickety old vessel which has sprung a leak and is barely keeping afloat. On top of which, it’s not part of some unified fleet but painfully alone. Attempts to justify the War as a religious struggle of cosmic significance are exposed as artificial, irrelevant in the face of material reality. As Mutter Courage wryly observes, ‘You don’t ask tradespeople their faith but their prices. And Lutheran trousers keep cold out too’. It’s in everyday struggles like keeping warm and well-fed that true heroism emerges. For the ‘poor folk’ at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy, ‘simply getting up in the morning takes some doing’. If they are heroes they are also, in E.P. Thompson’s memorable phrase, ‘casualties of history’.

Historical records of the War – over 240 quasi-autobiographical texts from the period have been identified – attest to this much. The Swabian cobbler Hans Heberle kept a diary of his experiences of the conflict, in which he recounts having to flee from his village to the city of Ulm no less than 28 times, lamenting that marauding soldiers ‘even took the shoes off my feet’. Pride swells through Heberle’s account of how, in a raid of 1634, his community ‘defended [themselves] for a long time’, before the village was plundered and set alight. Similarly, the Dominican nun Maria Anna Junius recalls the terror she felt when the Swedish army occupied her hometown of Bamberg, frantically trying to placate the soldiers to avoid rape or murder. Historians’ attention has, however, only in more recent decades been directed at such figures.

The German painter Georg Baselitz achieves a similar subversion of heroism in his Helden series of post-war paintings. These ostensible ‘heroes’ (pictured above) appear anything but; they are bloody, deformed, and vulnerable – many with exposed genitals and open wounds. They are also, crucially, represented independently of history, of any particular act which might serve as evidence of their heroism. Instead of Hercules slaying the Hydra or the Nemean Lion, we are confronted with lone figures in war-torn landscapes, propped up against trees or fences. Depicted is not momentary brilliance but sustained endurance, mere survival. And this is not a condition of the minority; Baselitz’s series extends over 60 paintings and 130 drawings.

It is through plays like Mutter Courage, and in particular the so-called Verfremdungseffekt or ‘alienation effect’ characteristic to his brand of ‘epic theatre’, that Brecht suggests a means of productively approaching the flawed typology of the hero. If heroic action doesn’t negate reality’s problems but rather perpetuates them, the key is to take a step back, considering not the ‘heroes’ themselves but the conditions which produce them. The aims of Brechtian alienation are, therefore, historical in nature. They pertain to the recognition of contingency, the acknowledgement that events could – and should – have taken place differently. Here, the artistic goal of passionate emotional identification is useless; a more critical stance is required, which seeks not the universally valid but the historically bound. Perhaps unsurprisingly, audiences could not always be relied upon to emerge from Mutter Courage thinking rather than feeling. Brecht noted with sadness that Fierling too often received a sympathy blind to her complicity in suffering and the alternative choices she could have made.

Nowadays, sacrifices at the altar of heroism remain omnipresent. Leaving my house, it doesn’t take long before I come across a sign mounted in a neighbour’s window: ‘THANK YOU TO OUR CARING HEROES’. Brecht’s comments regarding the compensatory function of heroism are just as incisive applied to the coronavirus pandemic as the Thirty Years War. Risking one’s health working without effective PPE or traipsing round the garden as an almost-centenarian is laudable, but a world in which governmental mismanagement of the crisis hadn’t called for such efforts would nevertheless be a better one. The readiness with which many bought into essentially propagandistic narratives of stoic national togetherness sends a clear message: Brechtian Verfremdung is in as high demand as ever.

learn more

  • PLAY: Mutter Courage, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett
  • EXHIBITION CATALOGUE: Georg Baselitz: The Heroes, by Max Hollein and Eva Mongi-Vollmer
  • SONG: Sonja Kehler sings Brecht’s Lied der Mutter Courage

Jack Graveney is in his third year studying History and German at the University of Cambridge, focusing on German intellectual history. He is shortly moving to Berlin to study at the Humboldt University on his year abroad.