February 15 marks the date of one of the most regrettable episodes in the history of World War II, the bombing and destruction of the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944. The Battle of Monte Cassino has been described as one of the longest and bloodiest engagements in the war, and the destruction of the monastery by the Allies represented a colossal artistic and cultural loss to humanity—although deemed necessary at the time. My maternal grandfather, Dr. Michael A. Colella, served as a physician at a field hospital at the site of the conflict. My paternal grandmother, a teenager at the time, was ensconced in a village fifty miles to the south. But neither talked much about their experiences, and all that remains to me as a memento of the conflict is a photograph of my grandfather tending to wounded soldiers. Naturally, my curiosity about Monte Cassino has remained ever piqued.
One could say that Monte Cassino is not just a monastery, but the monastery: the signal achievement of the founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict. He built it around 529 atop a 1600-foot mountain overlooking the ancient Roman town of Cassinum. There he gathered around him a group of monks devoted to a life of prayer, sacred reading and manual work carried out according to his signature Rule, with its motto Ora et labora et lege. Monte Cassino became a center of spirituality, learning and culture and reached the heights of its architectural glory in the eleventh century. It even produced a pope: Pope Victor III, elected in 1058, started out as Abbot Desiderius of Monte Cassino.
But Monte Cassino’s high perch and prominent location made it vulnerable to attack and strategically important to worldly powers. Besides a violent earthquake in 1349, it was sacked by the Lombards in the sixth century; overrun by the Saracens in the ninth; disrupted by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the thirteenth; and plundered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799.
And finally, in the 1940s it became a key defense point for the Nazis along their defensive Gustav Line, whose purpose was to block the advancing Allies from moving north to Rome. As it so happened, a major highway led through Monte Cassino and directly to Rome; and the towering abbey provided a fine observation point to view potential attackers. It seemed, to the horror of the Allies, that the former house of God had been transformed into the all-seeing eye of the enemy. The Allied forces had made two previous attempts to break the Gustav Line: the Battle of Anzio and the Liri Valley. Both had resulted in stalemates. It looked as if the best way to break up the Germans’ stronghold was to attack it at its center, the abbey of Monte Cassino.
The battle and bombing are fleshed out in vivid detail in Matthew Parker’s book Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II, and also in the BBC documentary The Battle of Monte Cassino, made in honor of the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1969 and including the testimony of many who were there. Both are excellent sources of information about this significant but strangely little-discussed episode of World War II.
It was no secret that Monte Cassino was going to be bombed; the world press knew it and had duly assembled to watch. On February 15 at 9:24 AM, the formation known as the B-17 “Flying Fortresses” dropped a cluster of bombs on Monte Cassino; according to one account, the principal plane bore the baleful number 666. Astonishingly, the monks remained in the monastery during the bombardment, choosing not to heed the leaflets that had been dropped by the Allies two days beforehand as a warning. Under the headship of their 80-year-old abbot, the Benedictines huddled in prayer in a refuge deep within the monastery and received absolution.
By 1:33 PM the bombing was over; the Benedictines emerged from their lair to find their beautiful monastery in utter ruins: the priory, the cloisters, the central courtyard, the basilica with all its priceless frescoes. (The tomb of St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica survived, however.) As one of the monks later recalled, “When it was all over, the monastery looked like the end of the world.” Several hundred civilian refugees who were staying at the monastery were injured or killed; not a single German was harmed. The next morning the survivors were sent by the Germans to a Benedictine monastery outside Rome; the elderly abbot was taken by the S.S. to the German Embassy in the Vatican, where he was forced to make a statement on the radio testifying to the destruction of his monastery. The struggle for Monte Cassino finally ended in May 1944, when the Allies succeeded in driving the Germans from their positions.
For whatever reason, Monte Cassino has not become as iconographic as D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Yet, especially for those who are Catholic, the event is pivotal, for it mirrored the larger spiritual battle for Western civilization that was playing itself out in the war. St. Benedict is said to have built his monastery over a pagan temple, smashing the sculpture of Apollo, destroying the altar, and building one of the monuments of Christendom in its place. Now, in 1943, Europe was suffering under the oppression of a resurgent paganism. With man’s capacity for destruction now at a more advanced stage than ever before, some of the world’s greatest cultural achievements were in peril.
General Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe, had stressed the need to safeguard Europe’s cultural treasures wherever possible. Nonetheless, there was a general understanding that human life was the ultimate criterion and was always to be preferred over cultural artifacts. From the Allied perspective, the Nazis’ re-appropriating of the monastery for their militant purposes had made the bombing necessary; they had made a house of prayer into a den of thieves.
The Nazis held to the opposite proposition to that of the Allies, namely that cultural artifacts were more important than human lives. As is well known, Hitler was an avid glutton of art whose goal was to confiscate Europe’s masterpieces for his projected Führermuseum. One salutary result of this is that the Germans had taken care to evacuate the ancient books, manuscripts, and other treasures of the monastery to Rome. It’s worth remembering that among Italian artistic masterworks, there were several narrow misses during the war: Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection—often considered the greatest painting in the world—narrowly escaped ruin.
While nobody took pleasure in Monte Cassino’s destruction, there was cheering among Allied soldiers and bystanders when the bombing took place, simply because it meant the breaking of one of the Nazi’s strongholds. As Matthew Parker recounts in his book, however, the cheering eventually turned to tears on the part of many when they realized the enormity of the act. In the words of one young Catholic American soldier of Italian descent, “Nothing was sacred anymore and the world had truly become a darkened place.”
The Nazis, naturally enough, exploited the destruction of the monastery to their benefit, painting the Allies as uncultured barbarians and themselves the true protectors of Western culture. The bombing was, they said, a plot “by the Jews and by the Bolshevik fellow-travelers of Moscow, London and Washington.” Never mind that the Nazis had profaned the monastery in the first place by turning it into an instrument of war.
In the years since there has been much questioning of the bombing of Monte Cassino. Claims have surfaced that the bombing was carried out as result of a mistranslation of an intercepted German message; furthermore, no one has ever established conclusively that the Germans were indeed hiding out in the monastery itself. In view of all this one former Italian president, a veteran of World War II, called the event “a tragic error, the result of poor intelligence.”
Whatever the truth may be, we ought not dwell on this tragic casualty of war, but rejoice that the monastery was rebuilt in something approximating its original splendor. Incorporating a cemetery for the war dead, it received its consecration by Pope Paul VI in 1964: a testament to the human spirit and the regenerative power of God. We can even take pleasure that Monte Cassino is now in a sense an “antique” once again, a reminder of a bygone era of history, and open for the business of prayer and contemplation. Resurrected from the ashes, this fortified sanctuary stands forever to watch over the world: an indomitable monument to the good, true, and beautiful.