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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Historical monuments in time of war

Philip Alexius de László (1869-1937)
Archbishop Dr. Cosmo Lang, 1932
Oil on canvas, 165.8 x 108.6 cm
Corporation of the Church House


One of the criticisms of Pope Pius XII is that he did speak out about the Allied bombing of Italy and Rome in particular during the Second World War when he did not speak out or loudly enough about other subjects. The questions is: was it a topic which should have so exercised his mind ?

Of course, he was Bishop of Rome. That should have been enough answer. However some have insinuated that this indicated a degree of partiality on his part.

So just how important was the topic in the scheme of things at that time in the 1940s?

He was not the only religious figure to be concerned about the problem. It also exercised non-Catholics on the side of the Allies.

In the middle of the conflict on 16th February 1944, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (Lord Land of Lambeth)(31 October 1864 – 5 December 1945), (Archbishop of York (1908–1928) and, later, Archbishop of Canterbury (1928–1942)) initiated a debate in the House of Lords on this very topic: "the importance of preserving objects of special historical or cultural value within the theatres of war, and to ask His Majesty's Government what measures they have taken or propose to take for this purpose."

The debate is reported here.

Lord Lang in setting out the terms of the debate said:

"Think of Rome itself. Rome does not belong to Italy; it belongs to the world. It does not belong to any particular time; it belongs to all time. It justifies its title as the Eternal City. I need not remind your Lordships that it is the object of veneration by millions of our fellow Christians in all parts of the world. I notice that last week in the debate which your Lordships will remember, my noble friend Viscount FitzAlan, though he described himself as an out-and-out bomber, said that it would be deplorable both on religious grounds and also on cultural grounds if any damage were done to the city of Rome. It must have been a satisfaction to him to hear the assurance given him by my noble friend the Leader of the House, that it was not the intention of His Majesty's Government to drop bombs on the Vatican City nor so far as it could be avoided on the city of Rome. "

But it was not only destruction within Rome that caused him concern:

" But Rome does not stand by itself. I wonder whether anywhere in the world there is such a constellation of lovely cities, towns and villages as in the north of Italy, into which the devastating tide of war must sooner or later flow. May I venture to remind your Lordships of some of them and the great monuments in them? There is Assisi with its memories of St. Francis and the pictures of Giotto; Siena with its memories of St. Catherine and its lovely buildings; Florence, of which I need not speak because Florence abides in the memories of all who have seen it; Padua, Perugia, Pisa, Ravenna, retaining in the twentieth century in its mosaics the austere splendours of Bizantine art, and perhaps most of all, Venice, that Queen of Beauty enthroned on the seas. All these places are beautiful in themselves. Most of them contain treasures whose value it is impossible to measure. Must we not think with dismay of the possibility of any of these wonderful creations and expressions of the human spirit being damaged or destroyed by the ravages of war?"

He called for a sensible policy:

"On the one hand, there are those who ask impatiently, and rather contemptuously: "What is the worth of these dead stones and dead pictures in comparison with the life of one single soldier?" But these things are not dead. They are always alive; they have, as has been truly said, the quality of enhancing life, of giving fresh vitality to the mind and spirit of successive generations. And it must not be forgotten that they are part of that humane civilization which it is one of our aims, in this war, to protect against barbarians. On the other hand, there are those who, in their zeal for history and art, tend to forget the inexorable necessities of war. Just because the issues involved in the war are so great, just because it is being waged for the whole of civilization and not only for this aspect of it, just because from all the enslaved and oppressed countries a cry for liberation is rising, it is impossible to sanction anything that would seriously hinder the one essential thing—that the enemy, who is prepared to bring all this evil on the world, should be defeated rapidly and completely. It must never be allowed, for one moment, to be supposed by the enemy that if he chooses to occupy any of these centres of history or of art and to use them as posts for his own operations, he will be allowed to remain immune from attack."

He also raised the question of the attacks on Monte Cassino.


The debate attracted speeches critical of Lord Lang`s position. However Lord Lang`s position was supported by the Anglican Bishop of Birmingham who said:

"The noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Lang, has brought up to day the question of the cultural monuments of Italy, and especially those of the early Christian Renaissance. Such things as Giotto's tower at Florence and the great cathedrals at Siena and Assisi bind all Christians together. Too often in the past we have quarrelled with one another, but these magnificent buildings, some of the finest achievements of European civilization, are Christian, and we cannot forget it....

We are hoping against hope that somehow or another the Christian spirit will lead to an ending of this war otherwise than by complete collapse of the other side, for we look to a future when we must live in friendship with those who are now our enemies.

We wish a free Europe, but we wish also a Christian Europe.

I put this point of view. I know many of your Lordships think it is foolishness, and indeed it has been said that the ultimate outcome of that point of view is conscientious objection—Christian pacifism. Yes, but Christians for the first three centuries of the existence of the Christian Church adopted this policy of passive acceptance of wrong, and in the end, against the whole might of the Roman Empire, they won. Is it not possible that there are powers from on high who can join in the conflict, and that if we try to keep our ideals pure, if we do all that we can to avoid the implications of total war, we may yet find a help that at present we do not expect? "


It is clear from the Government`s response that they adopted the policy of General Eisenhower which was set out by the Lord Chancellor in the debate. The Government at least recognised the importance of historical monuments and the validity of the formr Archbishop`s concerns but when it came to assess these against the lives of Allied troops, the weight given to the lives of Allied troops would prevail.