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Mourning the loss of Monte Cassino

[ by Charles Cameron — destruction of sacred spaces ]

Do we grieve the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino as we grieve the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas?


With playful and appropriate scholarly tongue-in-cheek, Umberto Eco describes the importance of monasteries — and of the Benedictine Order specifically — in preserving culture, literacy, the arts and sciences through dark ages in his novel, The Name of the Rose:

“Monasterium sine libris,” the abbot recited, pensively, “est sicut civitas sine opibus, castrum sine numeris, coquina sine suppellectili, mensa sine cibis, hortus sine herbis, pratum sine floribus, arbor sine foliis. … And our order, growing up under the double command of work and prayer, was light to the whole known world, depository of knowledge, salvation of an ancient learning that threatened to disappear in fires, sacks, earthquakes, forge of new writing and increase of the ancient. … Mundus senescit. If God has now given our order a mission, it is to oppose this race to the abyss, by preserving, repeating, and defending the treasure of wisdom our fathers entrusted to us.

Monte Cassino is the spiritual home of the Benedictine monastic order. It was here that Saint Benedict of Subiaco built a retreat in 529 CE, here that he wrote his Regula Monachorum or monastic Rule, the central text of western monasticism, and though the monastery had been previously sacked by the Lombards in 585, the Saracens in 884, and the Normans in 1046, it was devastated anew during the Battle of Monte Cassino 1944, an American artillery commander telling his men:

I don’t give a damn about the monastery. I have Catholic gunners in this battery and they’ve already asked me for permission to fire on it…

Harold Bond, in his book Return to Cassino A Memoir of the Fight for Rome, describes the scene as 256 American heavy bombers began dropping 576 tons of munitions on the abbey in waves, in words echoes by the video below:

There was no anti-aircraft fire from the Germans, either, just the drone of the big planes. They were very close now, and the first formation flew in over the abbey, releasing the bombs. We could see them fall, looking at this distance like little black stones, and then the ground all around us shook with gigantic shocks as they exploded. Another formation flew in, and then another, each followed by thunderous detonations. Now where the abbey had been there was only a huge cloud of smoke and dust which concealed the entire hilltop.


The bombing appears to have been authorized on the basis of a mistranslation. An intelligence intercept of the question “Ist Abt in Kloster?” — “is the Abbot in the Monastery” — was translated by the US as though Abt was short for Abteil, “Is the HQ in the Abbey?” The recorder answer “Ja” then led to the bombing.

Three days after the bombing, the Abbot was interviewed in person by the commander of XIV Panzer Corps, himself a lay brother of the Benedictine order, and reported:

Until the moment of the destruction of the Monte Cassino abbey there was within the area … neither a German soldier, nor any German weapon, nor any German military installation.

Thankfully, the abbey was restored and reconsecrated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI and remains to this day the mother house of the Order of St. Benedict.


I hope to review relevant portions of Peter Caddick-AdamsMonte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, available in the UK and due to be released in the US in April 2013, later this year. A review copy has been my source for details of the Battle of Monte Cassino described above.

Image sources, upper pair:

Destruction of the taller Bamiyan Buddha, CNN via Wikipedia
Montecassion destroyed, from Monte Cassino Tour

Image sources, lower pair:

Bamiyan Buddhas, from Random Walks
Monte Cassino by John `Warwick’ Smith, from the Tate

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