The Liberation of France is usually associated with joy, relief, and celebration. Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944 and had liberated Paris by August (70 years ago this month). Nazi German forces surrendered unconditionally in May of 1945, and the French people were free once again. Yet, the Liberation was also the scene of an obscure and grim chapter in French history.
Between 1943 and the beginning of 1946, at least 20,000 French citizens were accused of fraternizing with German soldiers and were publicly shamed by their compatriots. Traitorous crimes included prostitution for German soldiers, housing Germans, being friendly with Germans, working in German factories, and working as maids for German officers.
Age and social class varied among the accused, but almost all were women. Many were accused of romantic entanglement or “horizontal collaboration.” These affairs sometimes resulted in half-German children and often allowed these women to eat during Occupation while many starved.
As retribution and punishment, French townspeople ousted the accused traitors from their homes and publicly shaved their heads, stripped them of their clothing, occasionally marked them with swastikas, and in extreme cases tarred them or beat them to death. The victims of this punishment are predominantly known as les tontes or les femmes tondues, roughly translated as “the shorn women.”
As a witness to these events, Marie-Adele Fillon describes her experience as a young teenager in Chantonnay, a small town in southwestern France. Fillon says, “I saw a horse-drawn cart. There were two women sitting inside on a bench, not tied down but surrounded by the maquisard [French Resistance]. They had gone to fetch the women from their homes and brought them to the main square…. They shaved the women, and they were very happy to throw the hair at their feet. The women were crying and hiding their faces. I see them still today.”
Hundreds of thousands throughout France witnessed this same scene, which also appeared to a lesser extent in post-Occupation Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Norway and the Netherlands. Amateur and professional photographers, including Robert Capa and Lee Miller, readily documented these acts of public humiliation. Several short documentary films also detail the incidents.
Winston Churchill’s private secretary John Colville described public shaving in Bayeux, “I watched an open lorry drive past, to the accompaniment of boos and catcalls from the French populace, with a dozen miserable women in the back, every hair on their heads shaved off. They were in tears, hanging their heads in shame. While disgusted by this cruelty, I reflected that we British had known no invasion or occupation for some 900 years. So we were not the best judges.”
In Shorn Women, one of the few historical studies of wartime humiliations, Professor of History Fabrice Virgili explains that shaving, “allowed them [the townspeople] to move from a position of being the victims of violence to one where they inflicted it, and thereby reasserted their patriotic identity.”
Biblical and medieval sources tell of shaving as a tool for public shaming. As a punishment for adultery, shaving removed a woman’s most seductive and identifying feature. As French society emerged from Occupation, anger, humiliation, and sorrow ran rampant. Shaving came to represent more than humiliation for sexual transgression. Shaving expressed hostility towards an enemy no longer present and desperation to reclaim a land that had been lost in war.
Those punished as traitors were not always guilty. While some few may have lived in luxury during the war as mistresses in Parisian hotels, others were wrongly accused. Les tontes were often the reflexive targets of infuriated masses.
As Mme Pillon reflected, “we treated the women as collaborators, even though in reality, they were probably just in love with these men. We can never know; we judged them without knowing. A man is a man, but during wartime, they were merely dirty Germans and the women whores.”
When asked how the townspeople now felt about the punishments, Mme Fillon answered, “Oh they were not very proud, especially some years later. Many came to see this public humiliation but defended themselves thereafter for having been there. But you know it was the Liberation. We had suffered so much during the years; it was a way to express hatred of the Germans and these women.”
As Virgili notes, “The passage from war to peace was not a question simply of a few hours: the wounded had to be cared for, the dead buried, the population had to be re-fed, the enemy had to be seen off and traitors had to be punished.”