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Paul reports to the training camp. Next to the camp is a prison for captured Russian soldiers, who are reduced to picking through the German soldiers’ garbage for food. Paul can hardly understand how they find anything in the garbage: food is so scarce that everything is eaten. When he looks at the Russian soldiers, Paul can scarcely believe that these men with “honest peasant faces” are the enemy. Nothing about them suggests that he is fundamentally different from them or that he should have any reason to want to kill them. Many of the Russians are slowly starving, and they are stricken with dysentery in large numbers. Their soft voices bring images of warm, cozy homes to Paul’s mind. But most people simply ignore the prisoners’ begging, and a few even kick them.
The spirit of brotherhood among the prisoners touches Paul deeply. They live in such miserable circumstances that there is no longer any reason for them to fight among themselves. Paul cannot relate to them as individual men because he knows nothing of their lives; he only sees the animal suffering in them. People he has never met, people in positions of influence and power, said the word that made these men his enemy. Because of other men, he and they are required to shoot, maim, imprison, and kill one another. Paul pushes these thoughts away because they threaten his ability to maintain his composure. He breaks all of his cigarettes in half and gives them to the prisoners. One of the prisoners learns that Paul plays the piano. The prisoner plays his violin next to the fence. The music sounds thin and lonely in the night air, and only makes Paul feel sadder.
Before Paul returns to the front, his sister and father visit him. Their time together is as uncomfortable as it had been at home during Paul’s leave, and they cannot find anything to talk about except his mother’s illness. The hours are an agony for them. Paul’s mother has been taken to the hospital to be treated for her cancer. His father says that he did not even dare to ask the hospital what the operation would cost because he feared that the doctors would not perform the surgery if he did.
Before they leave, Paul’s father and sister give Paul some jam and potato cakes that his mother made for him. Depressed, Paul has no appetite for them, and ponders whether to give them to the hungry Russian prisoners. He decides that he will, but then he remembers that his mother must have been in pain when she made the cakes and that she meant them for him. He compromises by giving the prisoners two of the cakes.
Paul’s experience with the Russian prisoners in this chapter is one of Remarque’s most powerful attacks on the patriotic, nationalistic ideals of the war. During World War I, nationalistic spirit drove the armies of several countries into unprecedented levels of carnage. The leaders of the warring nations disseminated propaganda to their citizens declaring a fundamental difference between themselves and the enemy. When Paul sees the Russians, however, they do not appear to be part of an abstract force that threatens his fatherland. They seem simply to be suffering individuals, and Paul cannot see them as his enemies. They remind him of German peasants and seem no different and no less human. He realizes, however, that when these prisoners were free they were no doubt ordered to kill German soldiers like himself. Remarque implies that the shared experience of humanity is more basic and more morally relevant than the arbitrary classifications of nationalism.
While the rhetoric of politics makes no sense to Paul, the rhetoric of music does. Though he knows nothing specific about the Russian prisoners’ lives, he understands the comradeship of suffering, something that he himself has experienced in the trenches. Aware that Paul, too, is a musician, the Russian prisoner attempts to communicate with him via a mutually comprehensible language of emotion. His plaintive violin music touches Paul—one of the few instances in which Paul displays emotion—reinforcing Remarque’s proposition that there is something universal in human existence that outweighs all perceived differences between people.