I was thinking about this question I just asked, and I wonder whether the potential destruction of such an iconic building is even a realistic fear.

Has there been any incident of deliberate destruction of an iconic building (i.e. it's kind of world-heritage type structure) in an official war between nation A and nation B? What I mean is, during a war between nation A and nation B, nation A is invading / bombing nation B, and deliberately destroys a famous building of nation B? Does this still happen in the 20th century and later? If yes, then how does the attacking nation justify such acts?

Note that this does not include terrorist organizations or internal destruction for propaganda purposes. So incidences like destruction of this Russian cathedral, Buddhist statues, and Nimrud are out.

EDIT. And to make it more clear, let's exclude the destruction of iconic buildings/monuments when there exists a pure military reason. (I mean an enemy using these building for military purposes, like armed people hiding in a temple). And let us exclude "collateral damage", when there was no intention to destroy an iconic building. So that Caesar's burning of the Alexandria library would not qualify. And the destruction of the Parthenon will not qualify. The examples will be less abundant and more interesting.

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    Yeah, they still had value as fortifications. For example, the Chinese defended Nanking against the Japanese from the city's historic walls. The Japanese Army subsequently took Nanking after breaching the gates. – Semaphore Mar 18 '15 at 5:01
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    How do you determine what is iconic? how do you determine what is deliberate? How do you distinguish between errors, collateral damage and intentional destruction? How many invasions have occurred in the 20th and 21st century? How do you distinguish an acceptable answer? How will you use this information? – MCW Mar 18 '15 at 12:41
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    In addition to the many fine examples of historic destruction, ISIS purportedly destroyed most of the city of Hatra in specific defiance of UNESCO's World Heritage Convention. They are systematically destroying all physical evidence of Christianity within the territories now controlled by ISIS. So, yes, it is a very realistic fear.... – CGCampbell Mar 18 '15 at 14:15
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    We are attempting to answer this question under the meta rules for allowing list questions. Under these rules, I must ask you to accept the "community wiki" answer. This will make sure to place it at the top. Failure to do so throws you back to the old rules, which means we may close your question. – T.E.D. Mar 18 '15 at 17:57
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    @taninamdar: Arguably, any organization that uses "terrorist tactics" is a terrorist organization, regardless of whether it calls itself a nation or not. And in this particular case, ISIS (an acronym for "Islam State of Iraq and Syria") explicitly defines itself as a nation. Similarly, for a period al Qaeda and the Taliban were the de facto government of Afganistan. – jamesqf Mar 18 '15 at 18:37

12 Answers 12


(This is a list question with many possible answers. Mirroring the meta proposal for references I'm making this is a community wiki - please feel free to edit to add more examples.)

(See the linked non-wiki answers for details on each entry.)

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    Provisionally adding currently upvoted answers into the community wiki - if one or both of the authors do not want to be included, please edit them out again. – Semaphore Mar 18 '15 at 14:15
  • If we're going with that proposal, I'm going to edit this down to how I'd pictured it. If doing it this way is inferior, we can always go back. But I don't think we want the entire content of every answer in here twice. – T.E.D. Mar 18 '15 at 17:52
  • @T.E.D. Well, in that case I'll post Wàn Sōng Temple's story separately for now; maybe there should have a meta discussion on which way people prefer though. – Semaphore Mar 18 '15 at 20:40
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    @user31389 Basically, all of Warsaw. – Spencer Dec 29 '20 at 21:52

The Monastery of Monte Cassino. Which was made worse by the facts that:

  • even for the attacker, there were no actual reasons for it, as the Germans were (this time) civilized and did not use the monastery as part of their defenses.

  • it worsened the situation of the attacker. Once bombed, there was no cultural reason to declare the ruins "safe ground", and so the Germans did occupy it. And, as Germans knew from Stalingrad, ruined buildings did provide a lot of good defensive positions.

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    This is legit, in that it was deliberately targeted. However, it appears they did have a military reason for doing so (unlike the implication I am reading from this answer). Its possible they were wrong, but it wasn't just targeted for the joy of destroying something, or for political or philosophical reasons. – T.E.D. Mar 18 '15 at 18:03
  • correct. The monastery was a legitimate target, as it provided the Germans with observation posts, sniper positions, cover for mortar crews, etc. etc. Also, the accuracy of bombers and artillery was such that it was effectively impossible to hit the German troops near the buildings without hitting the buildings themselves. – jwenting Mar 20 '15 at 5:05

In September 1914, during the first World War the famous French Reims Cathedral was hit and heavily damaged by German shell fire. Reims Cathedral is a national monument of France, not only because of its long history and architectural beauty, but also because the French kings were crowned there.

As far as I know, the German troops undoubtedly aimed for the cathedral and did not hit it by accident. What remained uncertain is why the cathedral was attacked. While the French side in WW I claimed that the cathedral was attacked because it was a national monument, the German side in WW I argued that it was attacked because of military reasons.

More information: Thomas W. Gaehtgens: Bombing the Cathedral of Reims

Edit in reply to @user5001's comment that my answer missed a reference that the cathedral was bombed deliberately:

It is not easy to find hard evidence that the cathedral was bombed deliberately. Stahlgewitter.com has two German reports from the 22nd September 1914. That's 3 days after the bombing took place and after Germany was accused to destroy the cathedral in an act of vandalism. In my opinion these to articles are an attempt to white-wash the incident.

The second article, an official bulletin of the German Army says:

  • We [the German HQ] gave order to spare the cathedral as long as the enemy doesn't use it.
  • On the 20th of September the French raised the white flag over the cathedral, but put a field artillery observer on the tower.
  • It was necessary to remove the observer. We fired shrapnel shells at the cathedral, but not heavy artillery.
  • We stopped firing at the cathedral afterwards.
  • We blame the French that they misused this venerable building despite showing the white flag.

The German HQ doesn't say anything about the bombing on September 19th - they start a day later. But even in this white-washed bulletin they confirm that they aimed for the cathedral.

In my opinion that's enough evidence to prove that the German Army bombed the cathedral deliberately. What remains unclear is whether they did it because of military reasons or in the intention to destroy a national monument.

  • Didn't the Germans also target Nôtre-Dame at Paris? IIRC they did only minor manage. – SJuan76 Mar 18 '15 at 13:13
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    At the end of WW I they used the Paris Gun to shoot at Paris. But I think they were unable to target a specific building with this gun. – gdir Mar 18 '15 at 13:24
  • Your source doesn't seem to actually say it was deliberate, just that France claimed it was. The Germans claimed there were French troops in front, might have hit the cathedral by accident – user5001 Mar 19 '15 at 5:45
  • given the accuracy of artillery at the time, anything aimed at a place several city blocks away had a chance to hit the cathedral. Of course during a prolonged bombardment, aim can be adjusted to be more accurate, but from what you write here they fired only a few shots, several of which seem to have caused damage (and the only shots deliberately aimed were not heavy fire, but grape shot, effectively oversized shotgun shells aimed to kill exposed troops on the roofs). – jwenting Mar 20 '15 at 6:34

I'm reminded of the Baedeker Raids of WW2.

Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, a spokesman for the German Foreign Office, is reported to have said on 24 April 1942 (following the first attack), "We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide", a reference to the popular travel guides of that name. Goebbels was furious; keen to brand British attacks as "terror bombing", he was equally keen to designate German efforts as "retaliatory measures". Stumm's off-the-cuff remark "effectively admitted the Germans were targetting cultural and historic targets, just what the German leadership did not want to do, and Goebbels took steps to make sure it did not happen again".

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    You can't really list the Baedeker Blitz without mentioning the RAF Area bombing directive from February the same year, with the expressed purpose of targeting industrial workforce and morale of the German populace by attacking build-up, residential areas. Either offensive destroyed numerous historical centers, churches, cathedrals, and other "iconic structures", sometimes even using them as targeting landmarks. You can say the RAF and USAAF were more successful at it, though. ;-) – DevSolar Mar 18 '15 at 14:26
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    @devsolar you should post that as an answer I reckon – user5001 Mar 19 '15 at 5:46
  • @user5001: Hm... I think it's actually quite fine as it is, a) having them together and b) not allowing certain people to upvote one but not the other. I'd probably have posted a one-for-all answer, probably adding the US bombing of Japanese cities for completeness -- but Martin beat me to the subject area. – DevSolar Mar 19 '15 at 7:40
  • @DevSolar it's not really "having them together" when Martin's answer essentially don't mention Allied strategic bombing at all. Which is fine btw, it just means there's ample room for more answers on similar actions by different groups, even if the means are similar. Especially if we get specific example of destroyed structures, which would be more useful. – Semaphore Mar 19 '15 at 11:19
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    @jwenting: I really don't like the implication in your comment, but this is not a discussion forum. – DevSolar Mar 20 '15 at 7:54

Wàn Sōng Temple, China

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Imperial Japanese Army and its Chinese puppet auxiliaries set fire to the historic Wàn Sōng Temple, lit. Temple of (Ten) Thousand Pines. The temple was the largest of its kind on Mt. Pán in Ji County, near the city of Tientsin, a famous scenic area. The temple was ancient and once home to the famed Tang dynasty general Li Jing.

When war broke out, Japan quickly swept through much of the region, taking the urban centres without really control the country. Remnant Chinese forces, both regular and irregular, retreated into the mountain to conduct guerrila warfare. In response Imperial Japan instituted a scorched earth policy. As part of the resulting counter-insurgency operations, many of the historic buildings on Mt. Pán were destroyed.

enter image description here

(The temple today, rebuilt in 1985.)

The overt justification for the destruction is contained in the policy that led to it; namely, to suppress guerrilla activity.


During the Soviet German war (part of the WWII) both sides deliberately destroyed cultural monuments of the other side. The Germans tried to destroy the Uspenskii cathedral, a part of the Kiev Lavra. I only have a Russian language source for this, but there are some photos: http://2000.net.ua/2000/aspekty/istorija/44243 The document mentions names and documents from German archives about this, and cites A. Speer's memoirs.

Soviets deliberately destroyed several German WWI memorials, and even the mausoleum of the famous Napoleonic era general Blucher (Wikipedia article on Blucher).

  • I wouldn't trust any Soviet source. The Soviets were known to commit warcimes just to blame them on the Germans (think Katun forest) afterwards, knowing the western allies would choose to believe them because it was politically expedient to do so. – jwenting Mar 20 '15 at 6:36

I am surprised that nobody mentions the example which is going on just now: it is in the news. The "Caliphate" destroys on purpose the ancient cultural sites in Iraq. Of course most of us do not recognize the "Caliphate" as a state, so perhaps this example does not qualify. But this only shows that the question is not well posed: what is a state?

  • it's not a declared war, it's an extended terrorist campaign. – jwenting Mar 20 '15 at 6:37
  • All these definitions are fuzzy. "Declared war"? Declared by whom? I believe the war is declared by the "Caliphate". If you do not recognize the Caliphate as a state, you may deny that the war "is declared". But there are some people who recognize that the Caliphate is a state, and that it wages a legitimate, declared, even "holy" war. – Alex Mar 20 '15 at 18:05
  • This might get flagged as another question masquerading as an answer. Dangerous ground. Furthermore, there are legal definitions of what is a state; the topic really isn't appropriate for this question. – MCW Mar 20 '15 at 18:51
  • "Dangerous"? What's "dangerous" about "question masquerading as an answer"? Some new kind of crime... – Alex Mar 20 '15 at 22:51

The Islamic State regularly destroys historical artefacts. Here is one from just last week. Here is another. It is widely suspected that they loot and smuggle a considerable portion of the content of the museums and historical sites that they destroy as well.


  • This is already mentioned in answer of @Alex. Though I'm not too happy with Islamic State being qualified as a "nation", this already exists. – taninamdar Mar 19 '15 at 10:42
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    @taninamdar: The truth is that they're not too happy with Israel or the US being qualified as a "nation" either, but they are in control of the territory, operating civil services, and collecting taxes. – dotancohen Mar 19 '15 at 11:11

This occurred at least twice in the Vietnam War. I say "at least" because these are the two instances I know of, and there could well be more.

Mỹ Sơn

This complex of temples was built by the Cham in the 15th Century, who (I'm told) were the original inhabitants of Vietnam until who we today consider the ethnic Vietnamese invaded and took over. Cham people still live today in southern Vietnam. These temples were carpet bombed because they were being used by the VC.

When I visited (July 2013), one of these temples was being rebuilt.

Huế Imperial City

This citadel was built in the former capital of the then-Kingdom of Vietnam at the beginning of the 19th Century. Huế was seized during the Tet Offensive, and the Imperial City was a bombing target in the process of reclaiming the city.

The Imperial City was also being rebuilt when I visited, in some cases from the ground up, although much of it still stood and had already been repaired.

The way Vietnam is handling these sites is very interesting to an American; my Vietnamese friend pointed out that, after all, Vietnam won the war. But even so, it's strange to compare these sites to our own war heritage sites.

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    I don't think these count as deliberate destruction, as they were being used to house military forces. Those forces were the target: had their commanders chosen to position them elsewhere, the attacks would have been aimed there. – jamesqf Mar 18 '15 at 18:34
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    The OP needs to make clear whether targeted buildings for military reasons count.... – user5001 Mar 19 '15 at 5:47

In the Korean War, the US air force destroyed the Gwanghwamun, which was the gates of the old Korean palace. More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwanghwamun

Aldo, the Yongmyongsa Temple in pyongyang was destroyed by carpet bombing. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yongmyongsa

  • the destruction of the Leuven University library/Belgium by German troops in 1914
  • the destruction of Couchy Castle/France by German troops in 1917
  • the destruction of Warsaw by German troops in 1944
  • i am not really sure if bombing raids against centers of civilian population with iconic buildings fit your question or not, but there are quite a lot of examples of this. In Germany e.g. Dresden, Nürnberg etc.
  • several towns in East Germany going up in flames right after (or just before?) being captured by the Red Army in 1945, e.g. Neustrelitz, Neubrandenburg, Altenberg (probably not world heritage level, but still valuable). See also the fire in the Friedrichshain Flak Bunker in Berlin in May 1945.

Two instances come to mind quickly:

  1. The bombing of Rotterdam in May, 1940, accompanied with the threat to do the same to Amsterdam and Den Hague in order to coerce a quick Dutch surrender. enter image description here

  2. The destruction of the World Trade Centre Twin Towers, and attempted destruction of the Pentagon, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Given Al Qaida's status in 2001 as a de facto well sponsored arm of the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, I fail to see how anyone can see that particular act as anything but an act of war.

Further, it seems clear that these act, by and of their nature, are deliberate acts of terror, and thus the attempt to split hairs between acts of terror between nations and acts of terror between nationally sponsored organizations pointless.

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    A state-backed terrorist organization, is still a terrorist organization, not an army. – o0'. Mar 18 '15 at 8:45
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    I agree. I don't know how to say it exactly, but terrorism and war between two nations is certainty different. And even though 9/11 was a massively destructive terrorist act, it was not a full scale invasion of the US in the sense of an army of one nation invading / attacking another nation. First example makes sense though. – taninamdar Mar 18 '15 at 9:09
  • Did Rotterdam bombing destroy any iconic buildings? – user5001 Mar 19 '15 at 5:48
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    @user5001: Why yes, actually - too many to list here. The entire Medieval downtown looked worse than Dresden after the firebombing. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 19 '15 at 6:11
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    @taninamdar: I have to disagree. Terrorism is a military/political TACTIC. It can be, and has been, used by nation/states (internationally recognized or de facto), as well as by non-state groups. The "terrorist organization" is IMHO a bit of Orwellian-style newspeak, intended to foster arbitrary (and often non-existent) distinctions. – jamesqf Mar 20 '15 at 19:35

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