The former postman, whose name means “heaven-knocker,” overexerts his authority and is reported by the son of a local magistrate. As a result, the tormentor is sent to the front to fight alongside the men he intimidated with his petty drills and sadistic punishments. Adorned with a twitching red mustache and aware that his role as drill instructor leaves him open to a vengeful shot in the back, he opens the way for insubordination by pressing veteran soldiers for meaningless parade-ground courtesies. Paul labels Himmelstoss’ zealotry a “raging book of army regulations.”
The comeuppance for Himmelstoss provides the novel with a rare instance of poetic justice. After a drubbing by Tjaden and his pals, Himmelstoss continues to lord his authority through complaint to the commandant. His strutting ends when he faces a bombardment that kills officer and recruit alike. To his cowering, Paul pours out abuse:
“You lump, will you get out — you hound, you skunk, sneak out of it, would you?” His eyes become 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.
Himmelstoss, jolted from his panic by a lieutenant’s orders, regains his professionalism and becomes “the smart Himmelstoss of the parade-ground,” passing up the lieutenant in his zeal to make a good impression.
Remarque allows Himmelstoss a reprieve from ignominy in Chapter 7, after he replaces Ginger the cook. Paul acknowledges that not only has the group’s former nemesis carried Haie back from the front, but has begun spreading favors among the men. Treats in the canteen, sugar and butter from the kitchen, and easy jobs peeling potatoes and turnips combine with “real officers’ fare,” the enticement that vengeful soldiers cannot refuse.