Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
War as Business
Brecht states in the Courage Model Book that the play conceives of war as a "continuation of business by other means." War is neither some supernatural force nor simply a rupture in civilization but one of civilization's preconditions and logical consequences. In this respect, there are many dialogues—the most explicit one appearing in Scene 3—that cast war as another profit venture by Europe's great leaders. Mother Courage is the play's primary small businesswoman, parasitically living off of the war with her canteen wagon. As the Model Book observes the "big profits are not made by little people." Courage's commitment to the business of war will cost her children, the war taking back for what it has provided her in flesh.
Read about the similar theme of the power of bureaucracy in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Virtue in Wartime
Brecht's Courage Model Book also includes the remarks that war "makes the human virtues fatal even to their possessors." This "lesson" appears from the outset of the play, prefiguring the fate of Mother Courage and her children. Telling each of her children's fortunes, Courage will conjure their deaths at the hand of their respective virtues: bravery, honesty, and kindness. Later, The Cook will rehearse this lesson in "The Song of the Great Souls of the Earth." As we will see, Brecht often attributes these virtues ironically. Courage, for example, is often a coward, and Eilif is more a murderer than a brave hero.
Written in the midst of the growing Nazi terror, Mother Courage would impel its spectators to oppose war. In this respect it features a number of moments of capitulation as object lessons: most notably, the withdrawal of Courage and the Young Soldier from the captain's tent in Scene Four and the submission of the peasants in Scene 11. Mother Courage emphasizes the ritual character of capitulation. Years of war have frozen the people into fixed patterns of surrender and lamentation. Standing against these surrenders is Kattrin, disfigured and silenced by war trauma to which she continually bears witness, who risks both livelihood and life to save a town under surprise attack.
Against Mother Courage—a mother who fails to protect her children—the play places Kattrin. Her kindness involves an impulse to mother in opposition to her mother's coldhearted business sense. As Brecht's Courage Model Book notes, if Courage's war spoils consist of the loot she can scavenge, Kattrin's are the children she saves. Notably, her heroic intervention—one that breaks her stony silence—is the salvation of the children of Halle.