Paul and his friends had first encountered Himmelstoss when they were new recruits and he was their drill sergeant. Himmelstoss, who had been a simple postman in civilian life, was a sadistic and abusive officer, having let the power he received in the military go to his head. As Kat explains,
"If you give a man a little bit of authority he...snaps at it...The army is based on that; one man must always have power over the other...Let a man be whatever you like in peacetime, what occupation is there in which he can behave (abusively) like that without getting a crack on the nose? He can only do that in the army. It goes to the heads of them all, you see" (Chapter 3).
Because of the established order of discipline, the new recruits have little choice but to submit to Himmelstoss' excesses. On the parade-ground, the consequences will be too great if they were to rebel.
On the front lines, however, things are different. Himmelstoss is still outranks the recruits, but they, having experienced the worst that war has to offer, are hardened and more uncaring about the consequences of refusing to submit to unreasonable abuses at the hands of their superiors. A sentence of confinement would almost be a relief if the alternative is continuing on in the horrific fighting on the front line, and if someone were to exact the ultimate punishment from Himmelstoss by shooting him, it is likely that in the chaos of the front there would be no consequence. In addition, the recruits have earned a measure of respect by virtue of having been in actual battle. Although Himmelstoss does not hesitate to report the young soldiers' insubordination, military authority on the front lines is less likely to tolerate his pompous posturing. Things are more equal on the front lines among the soldiers, and Himmelstoss soon learns that "the front isn't a parade ground". If he doesn't treat his men with decency, his own superiors will not support him unequivocably, and if he persists in his abuses, the reality is that he may have to worry "about getting a shot in the back" (Chapter 5).