The military training camp that Paul has to attend is not too far from his
home town, and his father and sister visit him on a Sunday.
Paul does much drilling during this time and there is a soldiers’ home where
he can relax when he is off duty. They have a piano here and Paul takes the opportunity to play as much as possible.
Next to the training camp is a Russian prisoner-of-war compound where the
prisoners are a sorry sight, on the verge of starving to death. Those Russians that have anything of value barter with the local peasants in order to receive some morsels of food. Paul is in daily
contact with these prisoners and he soon realizes that the German propaganda describing the Russians as subhuman is totally false. They seem much the same as the German soldiers, being victims of the same conflict.
Paul receives a spark of hope.
Once the war is over, he decides that he will campaign against war by spreading the word about its futility.
On the last Sunday before his return to the Front, he has his last traumatic
meeting with his father and sister. They tell him that mother had been admitted into hospital in order to undergo an operation. His father will have to work long hours in order to pay for the operation.
Before they leave, they give Paul some food that they have gathered
together, but he gives most of this to the Russian prisoners before he leaves for the Front.
Paul realizes that what he has been told about society, patriotism and
nationalism is incorrect. He has learned first hand that war is not honorable, and now he learns that the Russians are not subhuman. They are just the same as his own countrymen. Again, such views
would be regarded as unpatriotic in a wartime country, but he makes some sort of commitment to try and campaign to put these errors right. Of course, through this book, this is exactly what Remarque is doing,
which drove the Nazi authorities to expel him and burn his books.
This is a feature of Remarque’s work. All his books are testimonies to
truth, and although the settings and stories may change, the basic theme is always the same – truth must prevail over deceit and lies.
The similarities between the German and Russian soldiers are symbolized by
the improbable ‘duet’ between Paul on his piano, and on the other side of the barbed wire fence, a Russian playing his violin.
We read, “When he hears that I play the piano a little, he fetches his violin and plays. The others sit down and lean their backs against the wire netting. He stands and plays, and often he has that far-away look that violinists get when they close their eyes, and then he strikes up a new rhythm on the instrument and smiles at me.”