Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years' War, but it was written either shortly before or during the early years of the Second World War. Hitler's warmongering intentions had become clear to many Germans by the mid-1930s, and Brecht himself, already opposed to the man he called "the great bandit," had repeatedly emigrated so as to escape the rise of fascism. "The dark times" was how Brecht referred to this era in his writing, and it is against the backdrop of the rise of Hitler that the play was written.
Brecht lived until April 1939 in Denmark, where in 1938 he had written Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, a series of short scenes which demonstrated without restraint the degree of horror that would ensue, so he prophesied, should the Nazis come to power. Today, they serve as a blistering warning which all too obviously fell on deaf ears. After Denmark, Brecht moved to Sweden. This is where Mother Courage and Her Children was first drafted. The decision to write the play was taken after Hitler and Stalin had signed their rather improbable pact. Brecht wrote that
this pact makes the air clearer. what we have is a war between imperialist states. we have germany as the aggressor and warmonger. we have aggressive capitalism against defensive capitalism.
We can see clearly from these lines the impetus for the play's war of religion that actually has nothing to do with religion.
The play was written with the intention that Naima Wifstrand, a Swedish actress, would play Mother Courage, and his wife Helene Weigel would be Kattrin (since she spoke no Swedish). Although it was written in Sweden, the play is set in the Germany of the past, and it is concerned with the Germany of Brecht's present. Brecht's decision to set his play in the Germany of the past, the Thirty Years' War, underlines several of the impulses behind his writing the play itself. The Thirty Years' War remains one of the most significant conflicts in German history. C. V. Wedgewood's account of it, much read by students of history when it was published in 1938, was re-published after the Second World War with a foreword which recognized that
the dismal course of this war still seems to me to be an object lesson on the dangers ... which can arise when men of ... little minds are in high places.
The same lesson could be inferred from Brecht's play. Brecht was not interested in history per se but in the fact that history seemed to be repeating itself: the play itself is a warning against the capitalism which, Brecht believed, drove both the war of the play and the war he was living through. The war, Brecht believed, "teaches mankind about itself, as it were, it reads a lesson, a text to which the thunder of gunfire and the exploding bombs merely provide the accompaniment." Observing from his own international distance, Brecht's home country seemed to be catastrophically failing to learn the lesson its past was reading to it.
Brecht had to move to America to escape Hitler, and--though he escaped successfully--this move hugely delayed the possibility of the production of the play. The critical audience that Brecht so desired simply did not yet exist. An examination of the play's stage history shows how, across the globe, Mother Courage and Her Children took some years to find its foothold in the popular theater. This, perhaps more than anything else, was because of the way it so absolutely broke with contemporary theatrical tradition, both in its brutal presentation of war and in its inauguration of "Epic Theatre," the first step toward a new kind of international theater. After several failed attempts to get it performed, it was not until Brecht's return to Germany that the first production, by invitation of Wolfgang Langhoff, Intendant of the Deutsches Theater, was planned for 1949. It had made little impact so far, but the 1949 production not only would severely rock the boat of European theater, but it also would introduce the world to the ideas and theories of Bertolt Brecht.