May 28, 2010


Manolis Fatseas, Livadi, 1942 (contemporary print from glass negative)

Photographed by a young Manolis Fatseas, the six men in this photograph formed part of the German occupying forces on the Greek island of Kythera during the World War II. They have gathered in a requisitioned house in the village of Livadi, most likely the one serving as their unit headquarters, and it is Christmas eve - 24 December, 1942. The large sign they are holding up, composed of several sheets of typing paper glued together, reads “A Wartime Christmas Eve in the Mediterranean”.

Kythera was very much a military backwater, but it overlooked the strategically important sea passage between the Greek mainland and Crete. The men belong not to a Wermacht (army) unit, but to a Luftwaffe (air force) field unit, and they are there to keep tabs on Allied sea and air movements. Much later in the war, the Germans were to ship a mysterious listening device to Kythera, quite possibly a primitive form of radar, but before it could be installed the retreat from Greece was ordered, and it was evacuated, still under wraps, along with the last occupiers. That this posting was not regarded as particularly arduous is underlined by the middle-aged appearance and distinctly unmilitary bearing of the group; all six are enlisted men, including the single NCO.

The decorations include what must have been one of the smallest available official photographs of Field Marshal Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe. On a shelf to the left stands a makeshift Christmas tree consisting of an Aleppo pine bough covered in tinsel and placed in a clay water-jug, alongside a small vase of flowers. Continuing the festive theme, the calendar on the wall at the right proclaims that “Who loves not wine woman and song, remains a wet blanket all life long”. Interestingly, the man in the middle is flourishing, not bottles of Asti Spumante or the equivalent, as one might have supposed, but real champagne from Epernay – in this case, Champagne Eugène Cliquot, a reputable but long-since vanished brand. Since these cannot by any stretch of the imagination have been available locally, they must represent booty from the fall of France, quite possibly acquired by the Luftwaffe unit itself during an earlier posting.

The men seemed determined to make the best of things. They certainly have every reason to be thankful; within the last month, the Soviet army has completed the encirclement of General Paulus in Stalingrad, and Rommel has been defeated yet again in the North African desert. For German soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1942, there were very much worse places to be in than Kythera.

1 comment:

  1. Manolis Fatseas died on Christmas Eve, 2015, aged 92. A retrospective exhibition of his photographs, accompanied by an illustrated monograph, will be held in Kythera during August, 2016.