A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 8 November 2020 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
I want you to imagine what it was like to be in a tank in the Second World War. You haven’t showered in three weeks. You’re squeezed with others into a small metal capsule. If a shell gets through the inadequate cladding, it’ll ricochet like a murderous pinball. Concussion would be a comparatively good outcome; more often your bones are shattered and your body becomes a blancmange. Soldiers called a tank a crematorium on wheels. Mechanics and maintenance men would cry when they came out from cleaning a tank.
Clarence Smoyer was 19. It was March 6, 1945. Blond, curly-haired Clarence from Armstrong County, Pennsylvania was in a Pershing tank, rumbling towards a crossroads through the desolate bombed-out cityscape of Cologne. ‘Gentlemen, I give you Cologne,’ his commander shouted down the radio. ‘Let’s knock the hell out of it!’ Clarence had already lost a cousin and a brother-in-law in battle. He said ‘Amen to that.’ He exchanged fire with a German tank, which quickly slipped behind a row of houses. Then suddenly a colleague in his tank shouted ‘Staff car,’ and Clarence saw a vehicle crossing the debris-strewn terrain of the crossroads. Immediately he unleashed a string of bullets. The car hit the pavement, and out flung the body of a young, unarmed, civilian wavy-brown-haired woman.
Clarence’s guts emptied and he tried to look away. But war doesn’t stop for tragedy. His tank was facing a German Panther, whose gun was so powerful that its shells could splice one American tank and plunge through it into the next. Clarence destroyed that fearsome tank and became a hero for doing so. But he never celebrated. The face of the woman in that car haunted his dreams for decades after the war. Finally 50 years later he was sent a videotape of the battle. It showed everything – his tank, the German adversary, the car, and the wavy hair of the dead woman.
In his seventies, Clarence started having nightmares. He’d wake up fighting, punching the bedclothes, afraid he’d hit his wife. Medication couldn’t calm him down. He couldn’t function. He saw the woman before him, day and night. He had one desperate thought. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who shot that woman. Could gunfire have come from the German tank too? And then he did a remarkable thing. He thought, ‘I wonder if the German tank gunner is still alive. Maybe I could meet him, and ask him.’
In March 2013, 68 years after their tank guns had been poised to destroy each other in the very same city of Cologne, Clarence Smoyer met Gustav Schaefer, all five feet of him – the gunner in the tank Clarence had destroyed that afternoon. Clarence was terrified at what Gustav would say – but Gustav extended a hand, and, in a gentle voice, said, ‘The war is over. We can be friends now.’ The two men walked to the scene of the battle, the crossroads of their lives.
Clarence explained, ‘I saw a film of it…’ Gustav interrupted, ‘So did I.’ He’d seen the same footage on TV ten years earlier. Clarence pointed to a lamppost. ‘There was a woman,’ he stuttered. ‘She fell out of the car, riddled with bullets. This is where I see her in my dreams. I still have nightmares about it,’ Clarence said. Then Gustav said the words that changed everything. ‘So do I.’ Dumbfounded, Clarence said, ‘There wasn’t time to study the car. I was told to shoot anything that moved. So I shot it. I shot her,’ he confessed. Then Gustav said the words that transformed Clarence’s life forever. Slowly, methodically, Gustav replied, ‘That’s why I shot it too.’
Clarence was stunned. The guilt that he’d carried for 68 years, the memories that had chewed up his life for the last 15 of those years, he didn’t bear alone. Both men had shot at that car. Both men had killed that woman. Once deadly enemies, they each found that the only person who could lift their burden of horror, guilt and trauma, was one another.
But that’s not the end of the story. They found out who the woman was. Kathi Esser was 26. Her three sisters had all lost their husbands in the war. She worked as a clerk in a grocery shop. It seemed one day she and her boss both snapped, got in the car and tried to escape the carnage of Cologne. Unfortunately for them, they drove into the crossroads between Clarence and Gustav’s tanks. Kathi was buried in a mass grave 200 yards away. Sixty-eight years after her death, Clarence and Gustav each placed a yellow rose on her grave. Then they had tea with Kathi’s family. One of Kathi’s nieces said, ‘You didn’t kill Kathi. The people who started this war are the ones who killed Kathi.’ Clarence’s journey of atonement was over. He and Gustav kept in close touch until Gustav’s death in 2017. Clarence sent a bouquet to the funeral, with the inscription, ‘I will never forget you. Your brother in arms, Clarence.’
Clarence never stopped dreaming about Kathi. ‘I don’t wake up flailing any more, and I can sleep a full night,’ he said in 2018, a year before he died, aged 98. ‘I still see her in my dreams. I think I always will. I don’t think she haunts me. It’s different. It’s not a nightmare anymore.’
The First and Second World Wars were different from almost every previous and subsequent modern war, because they largely involved not professional soldiers, but conscripted young men – many of them no more than teenagers. The tank is a fitting image of what it means to be a conscript – trapped in a situation that’s not of your making, choosing or wanting. These people were scooped up out of their regular lives. Gustav’s had been a simple existence. He was a farm boy from Northern Germany. His family didn’t have electricity, or a radio, or more than a few books. His big adventure was cycling to the railway line to watch the trains whistle by. He had no investment in the war. He had no grudge against Jews. He had no animosity towards America. The crime of war is that it takes two peaceable young men, Clarence and Gustav, with no reason to meet – and makes them deadly enemies. It’s true that the intensity of war gave each of their lives an urgency, an importance, and a sense of solidarity with their comrades that they probably never came close to matching thereafter. It’s also true that Clarence was celebrated as a hero for his achievements and courage that March day in Cologne.
But Clarence was having none of it. All he could think of was Kathi, that young woman who could take no more grief, no more suffering, and no more fear, and who was tragically plunged into the centre of the battle, there to die at the hands of ally and enemy alike. And Clarence, despite his nightmares and despair, did comparatively well. By contrast his commander, Captain Mason Salisbury, returned home from the war, graduated from law school, and become a lawyer at big New York firm. One winter weekend, he stayed at his parents’ mansion on Long Island, played tennis, and dined with his family. The next morning his father found him slumped in a car in the garage. Mason Salisbury had taken his own life at 30. Losing so many friends in battle was too much for him to bear. Who wants to be a hero, if that’s what a hero’s inner life is really like?
Here we have four people – Clarence, Gustav, Kathi, and Mason. I want to suggest to you that their stories show us what Christianity and redemption mean in the face of the horror and devastation of war. Mason shows us what redemption doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean victory, triumph and celebration, if those things are masks for inner turmoil, profound dislocation, emotional trauma and a conscience like a bomb crater.
Kathi shows us who Christ is. Christ is the one who goes into the place of enmity, carnage and horror, and who loses his life because of a battle he had no part in causing or continuing. Yet through his life and death, not straightaway, but finally, comes a reconciliation with mortality, guilt, bitterness, and one another, by which the nightmare of war is over and the dream of new life emerges. Without Kathi, none of the good and beautiful parts of Clarence and Gustav’s story would have come about. But for 70 years neither Gustav nor Clarence knew who Kathi was. So with Christ: the fact that we don’t know him or acknowledge him doesn’t mean that, long after his death, he is not making beautiful the bombed-out cityscape of our lives.
Meanwhile Clarence and Gustav show us the almost invisible work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was working in that camera crew whose footage Gustav and Clarence both saw 50 years after it was shot. The Holy Spirit was working in the circumstances that led to both men seeing the film. The Holy Spirit was working in the grace that led Clarence to track down Gustav, and in the words of reconciliation and solidarity that bonded them together. The Holy Spirit was working in the generous hearts of Kathi’s family that forgave the two guilty men and bonded the three households together in a moment of healing unimaginable 70 years before.
Remember Kathi’s death, and the guilt and horror that accompanied it, filled Clarence and Gustav’s dreams for the rest of their lives. After their meeting with each other, and the solidarity they found, and their joint act of honouring Kathi, and the forgiveness they received from Kathi’s family, those dreams didn’t end – but they were no longer nightmares. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for from the legacy of war. Two brave men, each trapped by the tank of their human predicament, each killed an innocent, non-combatant woman, and spent the rest of their lives scarred by the horror of what they’d done. No one wanted to know. Half the world wanted to call them heroes. Half wanted them just to forget about it. Until they met each other, and in each other found solidarity, respect, understanding, peace.
Kathi’s broken body became a blessing that brought reconciliation and overcame the dividing wall of hostility. That’s how Christianity works. We can call the meeting of Clarence and Gustav and Kathi’s family beautiful, tender, generous, forgiving, hopeful, reconciling, life-giving. But we have a word that means all of those things and brings what these people went through to the heart of our lives and the throne of grace. That word is communion.