What does Paul learn from his interactions with the Russian prisoners in All Quiet on the Western Front?
After returning from a leave during which he went home and felt his alienation from his old life, Paul Baumer is sent to a training camp. There he has learned to detach himself, "It is bearable if one expects nothing better." The only solace that Paul finds is in Nature that he has begun to contemplate and love.
Alongside the camp lies the Russian prison camp where the nervous and timid prisoners, who resemble "scolded St. Bernard dogs," scrounge around to find anything that is edible. And, while Paul watches them more, he discerns little difference between the Russians and the German peasants of Friesland. As he watches the German soldiers--peasants themselves--hold bread before the Russians, tantalizing them until they offer whatever they possess for it, Paul recognizes man's inhumanity to man and the cruelty of the German nature. For, as he is on guard over the Russians, Paul observes that they "are more human and more brotherly towards one another...than we are."
Yet, because he does not know their names, Paul states that he can only perceive
the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life, and pitilessness of men.
Further, he contemplates the irony and absurdity of war that these men could have been their allies with only "a word of command." However, such thoughts are disturbing to Paul and he knows they lead hims to "the abyss,...this annihilation of all human feeling." So, he closes his mind to his ponderings with the intention of reopening himself to them after the war. Sadly, he takes his cigarettes, breaks them in half, and offers them to the Russians as a compensation for their deprivation. When his father gives him a bag of potato-cakes, Paul does not have the heart to eat them, so he heads toward the fence to give them to the Russians until he recalls that his poor, suffering mother must have made them while she was in great pain from her cancer. He replaces them and hands out only two cakes.