Illustration of Paul Baumer in a German army uniform with a red background

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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How does war empower petty, power-hungry men in All Quiet on the Western Front?

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1. Himmelstoss is a "little man," short and not particularly impressive physically. (1:6-7) 2. He wants to be seen as important and powerful, but he doesn't have the brains or ability to make himself look good in other ways. 3. He has two particular traits that have been useful in "fighting his way up" in the world: a great memory for trivia that can be applied to military regulations, and a severe revenge-driven nature when he feels insulted or disrespected. 4.

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One of the abiding themes of All Quiet on the Western Front is that war corrupts. It can make people do all kinds of terrible things that they'd otherwise never do. More to the point, war can elevate the constitutionally mediocre and second-rate, giving them a level of power and...

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control over others which they simply do not deserve and to which they are singularly unsuited.

Put some people in a uniform and they start to act like Genghis Khan. Take Corporal Himmelstoss, for example. He may be just a lowly NCO, but his seniority over the men in his platoon gives him the right—or so he believes—to treat Paul and his comrades like dirt. It would appear that Himmelstoss has major issues concerning his short stature. He's the classic example of "little man syndrome," desperately trying to make up for his lack of height by bullying other people and ordering them around.

Himmelstoss's height issues are related to the point made earlier about war's never-ending capacity to promote second-raters to positions above their natural, limited ability. War makes Himmelstoss a bigger man in both senses of the word. His relative position of seniority makes him taller in a metaphorical sense, allowing him to look down on the raw recruits under his command from an undeserved position of authority.

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Several characters in All Quiet on the Western Front illustrates how warfare can bring out a thirst for power and capacity for petty brutality that was latent during one's civilian life. The foot soldiers in the novel endure unspeakable distress and danger while the commanding officers remain safely ensconced away from the front lines and make decisions that demonstrate a literal disregard for the lives of the men in the trenches.

The best example of a petty and power hungry man in All Quiet is Himmelstoss. In civilian life, he was a simple postman, a position relatively lacking in power. However, during war he becomes a brutal bully at the training camps. Knowing the new recruits must obey him, he puts them through extreme hazing and forces them to follow pointless orders that often lead them into distressing and dangerous situations, all simply because he can. He is tasting power for the first time and it has brought out an ugly side to his character.

Another example of abused power comes in the form of the teacher Kantorek. As a classroom teacher is is carried away by patriotism and enthusiasm for the war effort. He has no direct experience with war but feverishly preaches about duty to one's country as a supreme value. Teachers like Kantorek have power and influence over shaping young minds. As a schoolboy, the narrator Paul trusted Kantorek and believed him to be wise. He goes to war optimistic and believing in it's purpose. After experiencing the brutality of the front lines first hand, he bitterly reflects on the disconnect between the dehumanizing reality of war and the idealistic vision sold to countless impressionable young men by people they trusted, who turned out to have no direct knowledge of the function, purpose, or reality of war.

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Also important is Remarque's position that if the generals and other higher-ups who are responsible for sending boys off to die were themselves forced to actually fight in the trenches, the war would be over very quickly. War gives power, ultimate power to decide the fate of others, to men who have no problem sending boys off against insurmountable odds to die terrible deaths.

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