Like Kantorek, Himmelstoss does not figure heavily in the novel’s plot, but his thematic importance makes him significant to the book as a whole. One of the themes of All Quiet on the Western Front is that war brings out a savagery and hunger for power that lie latent in many people, even if they are normally respectable, nonviolent citizens. Himmelstoss is just such a figure: an unthreatening postman before the war, he evolves into the “terror of Klosterberg,” the most feared disciplinarian in the training camps. Himmelstoss is extremely cruel to his recruits, forcing them to obey ridiculous and dangerous orders simply because he enjoys bullying them.
Himmelstoss forces his men to stand outside with no gloves on during a hard frost, risking frostbite that could lead to the amputation of a finger or the loss of a hand. His idea of a cure for Tjaden’s bed-wetting—making him share a bunk with Kindervater, another bed wetter—is vicious, especially since the bed-wetting results from a medical condition and is not under Tjaden’s control. At this stage of the novel, Himmelstoss represents the meanest, pettiest, most loathsome aspects of humanity that war draws out. But when he is sent to fight at the front, Himmelstoss experiences the same terror and trauma as the other soldiers, and he quickly tries to make amends for his past behavior. In this way, Remarque exhibits the frightening and awesome power of the trenches, which transform even a mad disciplinarian into a terrorized soldier desperate for human companionship.