Illustration of Paul Baumer in a German army uniform with a red background

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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In All Quiet on the Western Front, why does Paul, despite his fear, try to alleviate the suffering of the Russian prisoners?

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Paul has become hardened by the war, and he tries to reclaim his humanity by focusing upon things other than those that pertain to war. He 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 Frieslanders who are his fellow countrymen and comforts them by breaking his cigarettes in half and handing them to the prisoners who light them in the dark and smoke contentedly.

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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."

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In All Quiet on the Western Front, why does Paul try to ease the suffering of the Russian prisoners? 

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.

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