Chapter 8 Summary
Paul is back at the camp where he and his classmates were prepared by Himmelstoss and others for the realities of war. It is not the same and he knows virtually no one. When he is not involved in drills, Paul enjoys the beauty of the scenery and relaxes.
Next to the training camp, separated by a wire fence, is a Russian prison camp. They are in even worse shape than the Germans are. They pick through the miserable leftovers in the garbage tins along the fence. While Paul and his fellow soldiers feel deprived, these prisoners are suffering the crippling effects of deprivation. These Russians are always looking for a trade, and they do have good boots to barter. Several loaves of army bread or perhaps one loaf and a small sausage is enough to buy a pair of good Russian boots.
Paul often has guard duty and is dismayed at how apathetic and defeated the prisoners appear to be. He reflects that one stroke of a pen, one command, or one document might change their relationship from enemy to friend. The very anonymity of these men makes them less of an enemy to him than a teacher would be to a student or an officer would be to a recruit. These thoughts disturb him. He breaks his cigarettes in half and distributes them to the Russians, and he feels better for a while. There is a funeral nearly every day, and there is a violinist who plays mournful tunes. It makes him sad.
Before he leaves for the front, Paul’s father and sister come to visit him; Paul feels awkward and uncomfortable. They tell him they are now certain his mother’s illness is cancer. She is in the hospital waiting for an operation, though they have not heard of any cancer being cured. She is in the cheapest ward of the hospital in order to save money. His mother has been sickly throughout her life, and the expenses have been crippling for Paul’s father. The coming operation is frightening because of the cost, but his father will work himself nearly sick to make some extra money. Before they board the train, they give Paul some jam and potato cakes his mother made. He puts jam on a few of the cakes and eats them, but then he grows sad and decides to give them to the prisoners. Before doing so, Paul realizes what it must have cost his sick mother to make the cakes for him. He only gives two to the Russians.