Himmelstoss ought to have been pleased; his saying that we should each educate one another had borne fruit for himself.
Paul reflects on the teachings of drill instructor Himmelstoss. Himmelstoss was cruel and unfair, leading the men to attack Himmelstoss in the night for revenge. This attack will not be the first time Himmelstoss is confronted with the reality of what he teaches, and he is often ill-equipped to handle it. Though the men hate him, Himmelstoss’s cruelty may have prepared them perfectly for the war, teaching them camaraderie amidst unfair circumstances.
He would like most to set us all on the run again. But he seems to have learned already that the frontline isn’t a parade ground.
Here, Paul notes a change in Himmelstoss, who arrives at the front. In the field, Himmelstoss realizes the limits of his authority. It was easier for Himmelstoss to be tough and unforgiving when the stakes were low, but now, when the situation is life and death, and hope is a distant memory, the Himmelstoss’s insecurities start to show.
He draws up his legs, crouches back against the wall, and shows his teeth like a cur. I seize him by the arm and try to pull him up. He barks. This is too much for me. I grab him by the neck and shake him like a sack, his head jerks from side to side.
Paul cannot hide his disgust when Himmelstoss, shocked and traumatized by battle, hides like a scared dog. Himmelstoss was not prepared for this. His rules and regulations and teachings all fall apart with the explosion of the first bomb. Paul, previously his subordinate, must yank him up and throw him into the fray. The power structures that were Himmelstoss’s only comfort are dissolved by the reality of war and survival.
That evening’s work made us more or less content to leave next morning. And an old buffer was pleased to describe us as “young heroes.”
When Paul and some soldiers ambush Himmelstoss in the night, Paul notes that even some of the older, more mature military men are pleased at Himmelstoss’s pain. This camaraderie in the face of petty authority exemplifies the soldiers’ standards for respect. None of the fighters, however wizened or rule-abiding, have any use for the desperate ego-boosting of men like Himmelstoss. Men who have seen battle can see straight through a thin layer of unearned authority.
Himmelstoss is a raging book of army regulations. The Kaiser himself couldn’t be more insulted.
Here, Paul notes that Himmelstoss and the Kaiser are filled with the same bluster. Both are men whose power depends on the upholding of rules. When placed in a context such as the front, where the rules and structures of human society are a distant memory, these men cannot hide how ridiculous and small they really are.