All Quiet on the Western Front | Study Guide

Erich Maria Remarque

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All Quiet on the Western Front | Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

Paul Bäumer is sent back to the camp where Corporal Himmelstoss trained them as young recruits. Everything is changed, and the camp is full of new people, but he falls into the same mechanical routine of military camp life. Each day the soldiers practice company drill, which allows Paul to be outdoors and take comfort in the natural beauty around him, such as the sand and trees. Next to Paul's training camp is a Russian prison camp, separated from his camp by a barbed wire fence. However, the prisoners come over to the German's side of the camp, looking through the garbage bins.

Paul finds it strange to see the prisoners, who are their enemies, so close up. They look like peasants who have found themselves inexplicably in the wrong place, and it disturbs Paul to see them beg for food. In the evenings, the prisoners try to trade their boots for food. Paul notes how humanely the Russian prisoners treat each other. He's curious about who they are and what their lives were like before the war.

But Paul also marvels at the fact that these men are his enemies only because a "word of command" has made them so, and that same word of command might transform them back into comrades. He sees power-hungry officers and teachers as greater enemies to recruits and students than these Russian prisoners are to him. Paul tries not to lose himself in these thoughts in fear that "that this way lies the abyss." He gives the prisoners his cigarettes, which brings them both a temporary sense of peace. After a funeral for one of the Russian prisoners, Paul listens as the Russians sing and one of them plays a violin.

Paul's father and sister come to visit him one Sunday because Paul has used up all his leave time. They discuss his mother's illness, which has been diagnosed as cancer. She has been hospitalized and is awaiting an operation that his father knows they can't afford.

Analysis

The fact that Paul Bäumer finds himself largely alone and away from his comrades in this chapter paves the way for his growing sympathy for the Russian prisoners. He becomes increasingly reflective about their relationship. Paul has a difficult time seeing the prisoners as enemies, because he realizes that it is a fiction based on a single command by someone he's never met. In fact, he says, the Russian prisoners "look as kindly as our own peasants" in Germany. Here, Remarque highlights a common theme throughout the novel: the notion that the people who create wars are the real enemies of the soldier.

Paul's empathy for the Russian prisoners reveals how the insistence on nationalistic pride during World War I is a fiction. Many types of war propaganda portrayed the opposing forces as the enemy, highlighting their differences. But Paul has a difficult time attaching the ideals he was sold to the men he sees starving and begging. It also pains him to see how reduced by suffering these Russians have become, stripped to the bare minimum of what they need to survive. He understands that he has more in common with the prisoners than he had ever thought. The fact that they play music together shows that their shared humanity transcends any enmity they may have for each other. He feels somewhat guilty about their circumstances. In order to feel better about the situation, he shares cigarettes and food with them. It seems as though it is becoming more difficult for Paul to distance himself from his emotions, and he stops short of admitting that he finds the war utterly meaningless.

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