It’s sounds cliché, but Italian culture really is like an onion with layers upon layers of history. It’s easy to forget when standing places like the perfectly preserved narrow baroque streets of Rome, or the medieval time capsules of San Gimignano or Sienna, that Italy really is unique in what has been preserved. The 20th century saw 2 horrific world wars centered in Europe, a most hellish nightmare for those countries involved. Today when you go to the great cities of Germany or the eastern European counties, specifically places like Berlin and Warsaw, you just don’t see centuries-old architecture. That’s because those places were leveled during WWII. They don’t exist anymore. They are gone, along with so much art and cultural heritage. WWII is a deep scar upon Europe that will be felt for a very long time. For those still around and only a few generations removed, the war remains a fresh wound.
So what was the effect on Italy during WWII? Italy escaped the destruction that came to Germany, but that doesn’t mean things weren’t bad. Italy was ruled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who rose to power (as Adolf Hitler did in Germany) by exploiting the economic hardships that resulted from WWI. He spread a strong message of Nationalism, and while Fascist Italy never came to rival the evil giant that Nazi Germany became, Mussolini pulled Italy into the war by allying Italy with Germany. That decision would bring extreme destruction and hardship to Italy. Eventually, after many years of war, Mussolini was executed in Italy as a war criminal by his own people.
Before D-DAY and the Allied invasion of France, the allies invaded Sicily from North Africa and began a slow march northward up the boot of Italy. Eventually, they pushed the Nazis out of Italy all together, but at a horrible cost. 320,000 Allied troops died in Italy alone, and many more German/Italian troops and Italian civilians perished as well. Along the way, as the enemy retreated and the allies advanced from city to city, Italy posed a difficult problem. Everywhere you look in Italy you see history and culture, historic structures stretching back up to 3,000 years, priceless statues and art, and beautiful churches packed with artifacts. Fighting a war in the advanced age with machine guns, tanks, bombers and millions of tons of bombs really was like putting a bull in a china shop. Allied troops were instructed to preserve sites of cultural significance as much as they could, but this posed a difficult dilemma: What is the value of a priceless work of art? Is it worth the cost of a life? To a soldier advancing through a shower of shrapnel and bullets, watching his friends die, these kinds of priorities become something very different. Even worse, the Germans were smart and often sheltered in historic sites for protection knowing they wouldn’t be bombed.
The worst battle in Italy and a tragic example of this dilemma was in Monte Cassino. Situated halfway between Rome and Naples in an area of tall rugged hills and deep valleys, Monte Cassino was a prefect fallback position for the Germans. The hills gave them many places to hide and an open view of the valley below. It was nearly impossible to take an enemy hill without near total casualties, as a few troop devisions found out. One advantage the allies had was air power, so they took to littering the hillsides with bombs in coordinated assaults with troops on the ground.
The greatest cultural landmark in Cassino, and indeed among the greatest in all of Italy, was the great Benedictine Abbey, a huge monastery atop the tallest hill overlooking the beautiful valley below. It was founded by St. Benedict in 529, the abbey was the oldest and grandest of the medieval monasteries, filled with priceless art and ancient manuscripts (a few fortunately taken to the Vatican during the war for safe-keeping.) Beyond that, the abbey was a symbol of Italian faith and devotion. It provided a perfect vantage point of the valley and allied commanders were certain that the Germans were using it as a fortress, so they made the decision to level it with bombs on Feb 15, 1944. As it turns out, there was not a single German in the abbey, only women and children. In one sad move, one of the grandest and most important Italian structures was wiped out, all for nothing. In fact, the Germans quickly took to the rubble of the abbey with their guns, and used the bombing as propaganda in Germany to show American evil.
Today, the abbey is rebuilt at Monte Cassino, but the wound remains. It’s hard to imagine that in a place so heavenly beautiful, hell was once unleashed in all its fury. In the next posts, I’ll explain more about WWII and its great effect on Italy. For now, here’s some rare color footage from Monte Cassino in 1944, including the bombing.