Study Guide

Corporal Himmelstoss in All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque

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Corporal Himmelstoss

Big Boss Himmelstoss

Himmelstoss doesn't get a lot of screen time (page time?) but he's both profoundly memorable and profoundly thematically important.

The reason? He's a total jerk.

You'd think that would be a simple enough thing—jerkiness isn't necessarily deep or interesting—but the character of Himmelstoss is emblematic of the fact that, to use an old cliche—absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Back in ye olde peacetime, Himmelstoss was a postman. He was fairly low on the totem pole: his job wasn't especially well-paying, prestigious, or sexy (no offense to postmen). This clearly gave him a feeling of insecurity, because once he's given command of men  he becomes a horrific embodiment of nasty authority. As the leader of basic training, he abuses and humiliates the men under his command: he makes them stand in the freezing cold without gloves, he antagonizes and needlessly punishes Tjaden for wetting the bed, and makes the men do menial, repetitive tasks.

And he makes it clear that he enjoys every minute of his power.

Paul waxes Freudian about what makes Himmelstoss such a petty, belligerent monster and lands on the fact that Himmelstoss may have a bit of a Napoleon complex. But Paul also understands that this abuse may have given his troop a good preview for life at the front: by the time the men are done training with Himmelstoss, they're hardened and used to terrible conditions. And they're also armed with a psychological advantage: they fantasize about revenge:

We had sworn for weeks past to do this. Kropp had even gone so far as to propose entering the postal service in peace-time in order to be Himmelstoss's superior when he became a postman again. He reveled in the thought of how he would grind him. It was this that made it impossible for him to crush us altogether – we always reckoned that later, at the end of the war, we would have our revenge on him. (3.62)

A few of the soldiers actually do get revenge on Himmelstoss directly (check out Kropp and Tjaden's Character Analyses for more) but what's more important is that they've learned to be propelled by anger.

Ironically, it's Himmelstoss himself who's unable to fight properly when introduced to trench warfare. As it turns out, guts and instinct mean more than rank and uniforms when it comes to firefights. During a particularly nasty battle, Himmelstoss cowers in a dugout, pretending to be wounded rather than go out into the melee. This act of cowardice makes Paul Bäumer furious:

"You lump, will you get out – you hound, you skunk, sneak out of it, would you?" [Himmelstoss's] eye becomes glassy, I knock his head against the wall – "You cow" – I kick him in the ribs – "You swine" – I push him toward the door and shove him out head first. (6.148)

Ultimately, Himmelstoss seems to mellow, no doubt mollified by the terror he felt during battle. His greatest deed is that he carries a deeply wounded Haie to the triage area. After that, the soldiers begin to ease up on Himmelstoss—he goes to work in the kitchen and offers them extra food and delicacies in the form of sugar and butter.

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