Paul arrives at the training camp, and recognizes few people. The camp is in idyllic countryside, and Paul chooses to spend much of his time alone, reverently observing nature.
Paul’s experience at the camp will be a time for introspection, and his solitariness sets the stage for deeper realizations.
Adjacent to Paul’s camp is a prison camp for captured Russians, who must sift through the Germans’ garbage to find food. Paul wonders what horrible refuse the men must be reduced to eating, as the German rations are quite thin themselves. Paul feels pity for the wretched prisoners, and notices that they have honest, peasant-like features that resemble those of the people of the German countryside. Some of the soldiers in Paul’s camp will kick the Russian prisoners out of spite, but most simply ignore them. In the evenings, the Russians come to the German camp to barter their possessions for food, and the Germans shrewdly trade for the superior Russian boots.
The sight of the Russian soldiers prompts Paul to think about the differences between himself and his enemy. The prisoners’ wretchedness makes it difficult to feel any animosity towards them. Paul is realizing that the common soldiers are, largely, all the same. That he is killing men just like him, toward whom he holds no real animosity. At the same time, these men all exploit each other in the name of practical survival (i.e. getting better boots).
Paul reflects that the Germans and the Russians understand one another very little. He observes that the Russians seem more friendly with each other than the Germans do, perhaps because of their abject state. Imprisonment has made the Russians feeble and apathetic, and Paul can only see them as suffering creatures. If he knew more of their lives, he might be able to find sympathy for the men. Paul laments that Russians are the enemy simply because someone in power commanded it to be that way. In truth, officers are more of an enemy to recruits than the Russian soldiers are to their German counterparts, even though the Germans and Russians would fire upon one another immediately, if commanded to do so.
The pitifulness of the Russian soldiers makes Paul aware of the animal-like suffering that warfare inflicts upon all people involved in it, his comrades and the enemy soldiers. To Paul, these men have been stripped of most of what makes them human, which makes it difficult for him to be wholly sympathetic to their state. At the same time, Paul understands that he and the Russian prisoners have much more in common than he does with his superiors, who think nothing of ordering men like him—and the Russians— to their deaths.
Paul becomes frightened by these thoughts, and decides to repress them until the war is over. He gives some of his cigarettes to the Russians, and is comforted by their glow.
Paul realizes that this profound introspection could make his time as a soldier harder to endure, so he tries to distract himself by being generous to the prisoners.
Nearly every day sees the death of a Russian prisoner, and Paul is placed on guard duty for one of the burials. After the funeral, Paul listens to one of the prisoners play violin and reflects that hearing the music outside makes it sound thin and melancholy.
The way Paul reacts to the music shows that his emotional reactions to the war are becoming harder and harder to push to the back of his mind and escape.
Because he already was given a leave, Paul gets none on Sundays. On his last Sunday before returning to the front, his father and eldest sister come visit him. The have little to talk about, and Paul’s relatives confirm that his mother has come down with cancer and will be operated on soon. His mother is in a crowded, inexpensive wing of the hospital; Paul’s father, poor and overworked, is worried about finances but afraid to ask the surgeon what the operation will cost, because he fears it might make the surgeon unwilling to operate. Paul thinks of his father’s dismal and grinding work routine, and tries to lighten his spirits with humor.
The dehumanizing cycle of sickness and poverty that Paul’s family has to endure isn’t all that dissimilar to the dehumanization Paul experiences in the trenches. Paul seems to recognize this similarity, since he cracks jokes to distract his father in much the same way as the soldiers use humor to distract themselves.
Paul’s father and sister leave him with jam and potato-cakes his mother has made. Paul tries some of the food, but has no taste for it, so makes up his mind to give it to the Russians. Paul then remembers that his mother must have been in great pain when she made the cakes, and decides to give only two of them away to the prisoners.
Paul’s conflicting emotional attachments to his home and to the prisoners force him to compromise. By giving away only some of the food his family has given him, he reconciles his generosity with his sentimentality.