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The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

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2.1 The destruction of Monte Cassino

This is a black-and-white aerial photograph taken in nineteen forty-four. At the top there is a Boeing B-17 aeroplane (Flying Fortress) silhouetted against a snow-capped mountain range in the distance. The bottom of the photo shows an aerial perspective of the town of Cassino and the hill on which the abbey stands. The peak of the hill is obscured by a huge cloud of smoke – the result of a recent bombardment.
Figure 3 A Flying Fortress aeroplane over Monte Cassino in 1944

On 15 February 1944, more than 100 aircraft dropped 1150 tons of explosives on the peak of the hill where the abbey stood (Figure 3), as shown in the video linked below. The attack was supplemented with artillery fire from the ground. The building was reduced to rubble (Figure 4).

Bombing of Monte Cassino video [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (make sure to open this link in a new tab/window so you can easily return to this page).

No evidence was found that these attacks killed a single German soldier in or around the abbey. Tragically, however, the bombing raid killed more than 200 Italian civilians who were sheltering in the abbey.

This is a black-and-white photograph taken in nineteen forty-four. It shows Monte Cassino Abbey after the bombing. On the right there is a square building which has several large craters in its roof and walls. To the left there is another connected building which is almost entirely ruined. All that remains are a few walls rising unsupported from the rubble.
Figure 4 Monte Cassino Abbey after the bombing in 1944

It is now believed that the abbey buildings were unoccupied by German forces both at the start of the conflict and at the time of the bombing. Although they had taken up positions close by, in the surrounding hills, the German Commander-in-Chief in Italy, Albert Kesselring, had left the abbey out of their defensive line.

Yet, after the bombing raid, a division of German paratroopers moved into the ruins of the abbey. Despite prior suggestions that the destroyed abbey would be of little value to the German defence, these soldiers used it effectively as a fortress and an observation point.

Ground assaults by Allied soldiers during the following weeks were all defeated. The Allies then spent the next two months reinforcing their numbers and discreetly manoeuvring new divisions of soldiers into strategic positions in preparation for the next offensive.

By 11 March, when the assault began, the Allied forces had doubled their ranks, completely unknown to German intelligence. Their superior numbers allowed the Allied forces to capture key locations in the hills around Cassino and the German forces, realising they would soon be defeated, chose to retreat. A group of Polish soldiers then finally captured the abbey.

After this victory, the Allied forces were able to continue pushing northward, and by 4 June, they had successfully captured Rome. And yet the Monte Cassino campaign was an incredibly costly series of battles. Along with the destruction of the town of Cassino and the abbey, as well as the deaths of the civilians hiding there, more than 50,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded as well as 20,000 German casualties.

The abbey was eventually rebuilt, with the help of the surviving monks, although it took many years to complete. The building was finally reconsecrated on 24 October 1964. It still stands today.

Activity 2 The morality of the Monte Cassino bombing

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Imagine you were commanding the Allied forces at Monte Cassino.

  • What would you have done? Would you have chosen to bomb the abbey or continue with ground assaults?
  • Would you have acted earlier or waited to gather more intelligence?


Our best analysis suggests that bombing the abbey was unhelpful to the Allied war effort. It also caused much death and destruction. Yet, given the rising pressure and lack of military intelligence available to the commanders, perhaps you thought the decision was permissible at the time? Alternatively, maybe you believe the commanders acted too quickly, or failed to show appropriate respect for the historic abbey. There is no clear answer here. Indeed, the morality of the decision to bomb is still being debated today.

Partly as a result of events like the bombing of Monte Cassino, many international laws and conventions have been drawn up to try and protect heritage from this sort of destruction. In the next pages you will learn about one of the main treaties with this aim.