All Quiet on the Western Front: Novel Summary: Chapter 8
Paul goes to the training camp. Alongside it is a big Russian prison camp, separated from the soldiers by a wire fence. The listless, undernourished Russian prisoners come across, looking for scraps of food in garbage tins. In the evenings, they come to the training camp to trade whatever they possess for bread. Paul often has to stand guard over them. He thinks of the arbitrary way in which some people in authority have declared these men to be his enemies. He is struck by the senselessness of it all, but he checks his thoughts, which could soon undermine him as a soldier. He promises that he will save such thoughts for after the war.
The days go by. Almost every day one of the Russian prisoners dies. Paul gets to know a few of the prisoners. One is a musician who when he hears that Paul plays the piano, fetches his violin and plays. In the night air, the violin sounds thin and frozen. It makes Paul sad.
On the last day before he returns to the front, Paul's eldest sister and father visit him. They feel awkward together and do not know what to talk about. One topic is Paul's mother, who has been diagnosed with cancer. She is in the hospital and will shortly be operated on, but Paul's father does not know how much the operation will cost. He fears he will be unable to pay for it.
Most of the chapter is devoted to Paul's thoughts about and observations of the Russian prisoners. It is one of only two occasions when he meets men who have been designated as the "enemy" up close (the other occasion occurs in the next chapter). As a decent man, Paul cannot help but observe the humanity of the Russian prisoners. This is emphasized several times in the chapter. The Russians "look just as kindly as our own peasants in Friesland," Paul says. They have "childlike faces and apostles' beards"; they beg for food "with those soft, deep, musical voices, that are like warm stoves and cosy rooms at home." Paul observes that "they are more human and more brotherly towards one another, it seems to me, than we are." He cannot think of the Russian prisoners as enemies, even though they have been declared by an anonymous authority to be so.