All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque
Contributed by Loretta Ingwersen
Chapter 8
Summary

Paul has previously been to the camp on the moors for training, but he hardly knows anyone there now. He settles into a routine: he plays piano at night, spends little time socializing, and absorbs himself in nature. A Russian prison camp is adjacent to theirs. Paul observes the enemy prisoners’ "honest peasant" faces as they feebly search and grovel for food. Most of the Germans ignore them, though sometimes the prisoners’ groveling angers them and they kick them. The prisoners also trade their superior boots for food, although now most have few possessions left to barter.

Paul frequently guards the Russians, watching them mass around the fence in near-silence. They are less lively than they used to be. Paul feels that if he knew them better, his emotions might turn into sympathy for them. He understands that powerful men in politics have decided that the Russians are their enemy, yet he feels that one can find greater enemies even within Germany. Paul is frightened of these thoughts, yet he knows within them lies the "only possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling." He gives the Russians some cigarettes. One morning Paul stands guard as the Russians sing and bury yet another of their own. A prisoner who speaks some German plays a melancholy violin for Paul and the other prisoners.

Before Paul leaves for the front, his father and eldest sister visit him. He learns his mother is in the hospital, and she will soon undergo an operation for cancer. The family has little money for the operation, and his father will work overtime. They give Paul some jam and potato-cakes before they leave. Not liking the cakes, he decides to give them to the Russians, then realizes his mother went to great pains to cook them, and gives them only a couple.

Analysis

Again, what looks like cruelty in the war (the Germans kicking the Russian prisoners) is simply a reaction to their anguish. The Germans cannot bear seeing such pathetic displays of humanity.

Similarly, Paul cannot muster true sympathy for the Russians because he sees in them only "the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men." He does not know the Russians beyond these generalities; as he says, "How little we understand each other." Such an understanding seems impossible under these conditions of scarcity, when each side wants to take advantage of the other for such bare necessities as boots and bread.

But Paul also recognizes that politics alone make the Russians his enemy: "A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends." Paul’s anti-nationalist thoughts are as explicit as they have been: he is not angry, necessarily, but logical and rational in his conclusion that powerful men have made these simple peasants enemies. Perhaps it is his calmness of thought that frightens him, since it is hard, nearly irrefutable proof that his country has betrayed him. He knows that he cannot afford to dwell on these thoughts now, but will think about them after the war; it is all that "will make life afterward worthy of these hideous years."

It is a great irony of the novel that such nationalism has transformed Paul into a humanist who can overlook boundaries of state and culture. Whereas the other soldiers exploit the Russians with trade, Paul’s transactions are not material or greedy. He gives them the potato-cakes generously and, more importantly, he shares in their culture, watching their burial service and listening to the violinist. These scenes demonstrate a shared humanity that the war cannot divide, and are among the few times that Paul allows himself to feel.

The subplot of Paul’s mother continues to weigh on his mind. He understands that while his family has not seen the brutality he has endured, they are going through a similar torture and making sacrifices, as well. Though he is still wary of allowing his emotions to take over, his gift of the potato-cakes to the prisoners is his way of paying tribute to his mother. If he cannot connect directly with her, at least he can be a conduit of sorts, uniting his sickly mother with the sickly Russians.

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