In All Quiet on the Western Front, why does Paul try to ease the suffering of the Russian prisoners?
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As Paul returns to duty from his leave at home where he has realized that part of him has become deadened because he is no longer interested in his books, he tries to reclaim his humanity by focusing upon things other than those that pertain to war. For instance, he goes into the woods where he enjoys the play of light and shadow upon Nature, finding aesthetic pleasure once again. Determined not to further "the annihilation of all human feeling" in himself, Paul perceives the prisoners, not as the enemy, but as men with
honest peasant face, broad foreheads, broad noses, broad mouths, broad hands, and thick hair.
Further, he compares them to the peasants of Friesland, who are his fellow countrymen. When these starving Russians come to his camp to trade, the German soldiers rarely give anything away. But, as Paul is often at guard over the Russians of an evening, he comforts them by breaking his cigarettes in half and handing them to the prisoners who light them in the dark and smoke contentedly. Also, when those that are musicians play, Paul listens intently. After one Russian who plays the violin learns that Paul is a pianist, he brings his violin and plays while he smiles across the wire fence at Paul demonstrating his appreciation for Paul's sympathetic ear.
As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Paul. While it may initially seem as if he is a rock without the emotional capacity to experience the pain and suffering of the war. However, by the point in the story that you are asking about, we can glimpse the kinder side of Paul who is merely repressing his emotions so as to survive amidst the horrors. When he comes into touch with the Russian prisoners, he notes that their faces do not show "the faces of the enemy" but instead reflect the same qualities as the "peasants" back home whom he calls neighbors, family, and friends. Paul is clearly not so hardened by the war to make the absolute distinctions between the "us" (Germans) and the "them" (Russians) involved in the fighting. Instead, the Russian prisoners remind him that the conflict has almost no relation to the everyday farmer such as himself and the prisoners. As such, out of compassion or pity (or perhaps both), Paul attempts to relieve the hardships of the Russians.
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