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Kat’s rant about the brutal hierarchies of the military blames the suffering that soldiers endure on a fundamental human sadism. Though Paul and Kropp volunteer theories about why officers are needlessly cruel, the text privileges Kat’s opinions by letting Kat air them to a greater extent than others are allowed to air their opinions, and by having the others defer to him in the end. Kat argues that officers are cruel to those ranked below them because they enjoy exercising power that they do not have in civilian life; a certain company commander’s “head has been turned by having so much power.” This sadism is a kind of class warfare. Kat maintains that the lower one’s station in civil society, the more power corrupts one in the army.
Remarque complicates Kat’s complaints, however, with the account of the beating of Himmelstoss, which went beyond a mere prank; it was brutal, as Himmelstoss was whipped and partially suffocated. Haie, whose name means “sharks” in German, bent over Himmelstoss “with a fiendish grin and his mouth open with bloodlust.” Paul describes him winding up “as if he were going to reach down a star,” an ironic play on Himmelstoss’s name, which consists of the German words meaning “heaven” and “strike” or “hit.” This account illustrates that Paul and his friends are not above the same cruelty that they fault in their officers. Sadism is not simply a function of rank in the military; Remarque suggests that, in wartime, it pervades everyone’s mindset.