In All Quiet on the Western Front, as Paul stands guard over the Russian prisoners and ponders how commands from higher-ups have transformed men so much like his own countrymen into enemies and could just as easily turn them into friends, these thoughts frighten him. Why, then, does Paul try to ease the suffering of the Russian prisoners?
Having returned from leave, during which time he visited his ailing mother and realized that some of his feelings were nearly dead, Paul goes to a training camp. There, he spends time alone, contemplating the beauties of nature, reviving his spirit. But, in contrast to this beauty of nature, there is a large Russian prison camp where the starving occupants of this camp come out to search among the Germans' garbage for what they can find to eat. As he looks at the Russians, Paul thinks that they resemble the peasants in Friesland, in his own country,
...their heads droop as they stretch out their hands and beg in the few words of German that they know--beg with those soft deep, musical voices, that are like warm stoves and cosy rooms at home.
While Paul perceives little distinction between his own countrymen and the Russians, these anonymous, "quiet men" with faces of children and beards of "apostles," seem less his enemy than the non-commissioned officers on his own side. And yet, disturbing thoughts of how he and they would shoot at each other if circumstances were different enters Paul's mind. Truly, these thoughts terrify him, placing him near "the abyss" of non-feeling, what Paul calls the "annihilation of all human feeling."
Just as he tries later in Chapter 9 to save the life of the French soldier, whom he has come to see as a man rather than the enemy he feared when he jumped into his fox hole, Paul perceives the Russians as men, very much a part of humanity like himself. Moreover, it is only in thinking this way that Paul can avoid the "abyss" of unfeeling that will ruin his life forever since, he contends, the maintenance of feeling "is a task that will make life afterward worthy of these hideous years."