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A low aerial view of Monte Cassino Abbey, south-east of Rome, after the February 1944 bombing. (Wikimedia Commons/The Imperial War Museum)

Second World War fight to protect Monte Cassino Abbey was a battle over Europe’s history

The Allied bombing of Monte Cassino Abbey in Italy on Feb. 15, 1944, was a mistake.

Hundreds of civilians reportedly died, and the Allies soon learned that the Germans, believed to be hunkered inside, were not there.

Military historians have written tirelessly about the strategic errors during this critical phase of the “Italian campaign,” which reduced the abbey to a “mass of ruins.”

Situated on the Germans’ defensive “Gustav Line,” which connected the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas, the abbey stood in the way of the Allies’ march towards Rome. But was its destruction really necessary?

The bombing of Cassino Monastery and town, May 1944, by Peter McIntryre, an official Second World War artist. (Wikimedia Commons/Archives New Zealand)

Many of the campaign’s closest participants didn’t think so. Writing after the war, American army General Mark W. Clark considered the attack an unnecessary measure.

A senior British army officer, Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, called it “an act of sheer tactical stupidity.” Even Winston Churchill questioned whether Monte Cassino, “which several times in previous wars had been pillaged, destroyed and rebuilt … should have been destroyed once again.”

Yet all was not lost. Pre-emptive measures fuelled by a growing trans-Atlantic concern for the protection of its ancient library, archive and treasures spared the abbey an even greater disaster: the complete loss of its cultural identity and heritage.

Both Allied and Axis forces, engaged in a larger war against each other, scrambled to protect Monte Cassino’s library and artifacts. A politicized struggle emerged in the process, with both sides wanting to be seen and remembered as guardians of Europe’s cultural and religious inheritance.

Rise to prominence

Monte Cassino was the fountainhead of the western monastic tradition. Established by Saints Benedict and Scholastica around the year 529, the abbey grew throughout the Middle Ages into one of the most important religious, political, cultural and intellectual centres in western Europe.

It acquired this reputation in part thanks to the basic instructions for monks’ religious life first developed at the abbey known as The Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedict’s “rule” offered organizing principles and regulations on obedience, work and prayer that inspired a community of devoted followers, and is today considered a classic text of Christian spirituality.

Orthodox icon depicting St. Benedict, also known as Benedict of Nursia. (Wikimedia Commons)

The abbey’s library and archive were especially famous. The collection was already substantial by the third quarter of the eighth century, and grew significantly in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Under Abbot Desiderius (1058-87), who physically expanded the abbey’s scriptorium and its scribal activity, Monte Cassino assumed a prominent place in the annals of western history, culture and learning.

The abbey’s so-called “Golden Age” didn’t last forever. Yet the achievements of this era furnished a rich historical legacy.

More than just bricks and mortar

Saving the abbey from wartime destruction became a priority for both Allied and Axis forces.

The former archbishop of both York and Canterbury, Lord Cosmo Lang of Lambeth, argued that the abbey’s “monuments of the great past, its architecture, its sculptures, its pictures are among the noblest expressions of the human spirit.”

Cosmo Gordon Lang (1864-1945), portrait by Philip de László. (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Italy’s monuments and cultural centres demanded great respect; they symbolized “to the world all that we are fighting to preserve.”

Appealing to the Italian people by radio, leaflets “and any other means available,” American army General George Marshall sought to remove all movable works of art from harm’s way. The destruction of immovable works was also to be avoided, “insofar as possible without handicapping military operations.”

Italy’s cultural inheritance was at stake.

Practical limits to protection

There were practical limits to the protection available. The lives of fighting men, military strategists repeatedly argued, should take precedence over ancient buildings.

But as Eisenhower admitted, “the choice is not always so clear-cut as that.” He recognized there were times when “military necessity” could justify the complete annihilation of “some honoured site.” But it was the imperative of high commanders, he contended, to “spare without any detriment to operational needs” whatever monuments could be saved.

The British House of Lords reached a similar conclusion. Knowing that the abbey’s priceless treasures were “subject to the swaying tides of battle,” the House called on the “Germans occupying the place to remove them to safety as soon as they were in real danger.…

When the Germans did so, Viscount Herbert Samuel called the act “a great relief to all who care for the interests of history.”

Evacuating library, treasures

In October 1943, an Austrian officer, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Schlegel, commander of the Divisional Maintenance Section — together with a German officer, Captain Maximilian Johannes Becker — convinced Abbot Gregorio Diamare to move the abbey’s literary, artistic and cultural treasures to safety.

In a series of newspaper articles written for the Austrian newspaper Die Österreichische Furche in 1951, Schlegel recounted the sequence of events.

Together with the abbot and community of monks, they forged a plan to evacuate Monte Cassino’s archive and library collections. According to Schlegel, the former consisted of some 80,000 documents while the latter contained around 70,000 volumes.

Transfer of art treasures from Monte Cassino, 1943. Abbot Gregorio Diamare, left, with Lieutenant Colonel Julius Schlegel. (German federal archives/Wikimedia Commons)

Added to this list of artifacts were priceless artistic works by Titian, Raphael, Bruegel and da Vinci, among others, as well as various ancient vases, tapestries, sculptures, reliquaries (containers for holy relics) and crucifixes.

Beyond its own library and treasures, contents from two museums in Naples, the convent of Montevergine near Avellino, and the Keats-Shelley house in Rome, had already been relocated there.

Over three short weeks, the remaining Cassinese monks, Italian refugees and German soldiers transported some 700 crates by 100 trucks — some to the neutral territory of the Vatican (Castel Sant'Angelo) and its library for safekeeping, others to a castle in Spoleto, about 100 kilometres north of Rome.

Improbable salvage operation

The whole salvage operation was an improbable feat in diplomacy, secular and ecclesiastical collaboration and logistics in the midst of war. But there are lingering questions about the Germans’ intervention — how both they and Allied forces sought to represent it in historical records.

Was it a genuine humanitarian effort to safeguard Monte Cassino’s heritage ordered by German High Command?

Was it a personal initiative spearheaded by Schlegel, “against the order of his German army superiors,” as the New York Times reported in 1958?

Or was it part of a larger propaganda campaign intended to disparage the Allies’ military actions against the defenceless Benedictine house?

Whatever the answer, the Italian Director General of the Fine Arts, writing on Dec. 31, 1943, thanked German military and political authorities for their collaborative efforts in safeguarding the “national artistic patrimony.”

The monks singled out Schlegel for his deeds, thanking him for saving them and their abbey’s possessions.

The national German newspaper, Die Welt, published a commemorative story in 1998 about Schlegel’s efforts, which it claimed Italy “has not forgotten.”

View of the rebuilt Monte Cassino Abbey. (Wikimedia Commons)

Preserving the abbey’s heritage was considered a moral and necessary good. Re-consecrating it in 1964, after almost two decades of reconstruction, Pope Paul VI marvelled at its capacity for regeneration. He celebrated peace “after whirlwinds of war had blown out the holy and benevolent flame.…”

Today, global pilgrims and tourists visit the restored abbey every day to experience its spiritual, historical and artistic treasures.

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