Johnny Cash's one-armed man who can't cry and his laughing whore might have to move to the back of the Depressing Children's Book Bus. Because here comes Bertolt Brecht's The Three Soldiers who can't laugh--until they're lined up against a wall in Moscow and shot for committing a string of atrocities.
Die drei Soldaten was published in 1932 as the sixth volume of Brecht's poetry series, Versuche [Experiments]. The 14-section poem told the story of three increasingly outraged soldiers who travel from Germany to Russia, surveying the decadence, suffering, and economic injustice of Weimar Germany. It was, Brecht wrote in the introduction, "intended when read aloud to provoke children to ask questions."
Questions like, "Why do the capitalists with their vast factories and hearts of stone trample on the poor?" and "Why don't the starving workers rise up and seize the wealth of the corrupt priests?" You know, the basics.
And who better to illustrate the story--it was for children, remember--than the Weimar's most famously disillusioned Dadaist, communist caricaturist, George Grosz? I got the image above from Will's extended post about the book at A Journey Round My Skull . I wonder if this little sketch of a train is the "destruction of wheat in a time of hunger"! [via The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht]
As you might expect of a slim book of verse published by two outspoken revolutionaries who soon fled into exile as the Nazis came to power, original copies of Versuche 6: Die drei Soldaten -- Ein Kinderbuch are not easy to find. And when they do show up, you have to be a capitalist overlord to afford them.
At the moment, Zurich bookseller Biblion has a copy for EUR455. Your best Brecht bang for the buck, though, is to buy complete sets of Versuche 1-19, or at least the pre-exile set, vols 1-7. Wait, Versuche was republished in 1959, "mit illustrationen"! Even a struggling member of the oppressed proletariat can afford a copy! Of course, it's still in German...
Provoke children to ask questions [a journey round my skull]
Search abebooks for Brecht, Versuche, Soldaten, $16-$2,194 [abebooks]