French women who befriended the Nazis, through coerced, forced, or voluntary relationships, were singled out for shameful retribution following the liberation of France. The woman photographed here, believed to have been a prostitute who serviced German occupiers, is having her head shaved by French civilians to publicly mark her. This picture was taken in Montelimar, France, August 29, 1944.
At the end of World War II, many French people accused of collaboration with Germany endured a particularly humiliating act of revenge: their heads were shaved in public. Nearly all those punished were women. Most historians have stressed the sexual anxiety created by the Nazi Occupation and how women’s sexual activity was judged as part of a public “cleansing” after liberation. Similar to the vigilante gangs that punished men who collaborated with the occupiers, groups would band together to judge women by parading them in the public square. This episode in French history continues to provoke shame and unease and as a result has never been subject of a thorough examination.
Throughout France, from 1943 to the beginning of 1946, about 20,000 women of all ages and all professions who were accused of having collaborated with the occupying Germans had their heads shaved. Just as the identity of those who carried this task out varied so too did the form it took. For example, among those who carried it out can be found members of the Resistance, those who took part in fighting at the time of the Liberation, neighbors who came down into the street once the Germans had left and men whose authority depended on the police and the courts.
All of them carried out this violent deed either behind closed doors, inside the walls of a prison or the home of the women so punished, or in a public square. If, in the last instance, it was men who wielded the scissors and the clippers, the population as a whole – men, women and children – were present at the event, which was both a spectacle and a demonstration of the punishment to be meted out to traitors.
The imposition of punishment with distinct sexist overtone, characterized by branding or marking, has overshadowed its use for all acts of collaboration. After the war up to the present, photographs of the women with shaven heads have become the only evidence of practice about which those who carried it out have remained silent – attention has been directed at the victims and at the act itself, leaving both what preceded and followed it (collaboration, accusation, arrest, judgment, condemnation) neglected.
Of the collaborative acts of which women were accused, three categories can be defined: political, where they had belonged to a collaborationist organization or, more modestly, had held opinions in favor of the enemy or shown opposition to the Resistance and allied forces; financial, if they had benefited from professional or business contacts; personal, if they had relationships with members of he occupying forces. They could also be accused someone to the occupying authorities.
A fourth reason for being arrested and for having one’s head shaved was to be someone from one of the Axis countries; this did not necessarily indicate collaboration but it invited suspicion. In total there were 23 , 2315 people who had their head shaved as a punishment for being a collaborationist.
Lee Miller, one of the photographers who documented the event, talks of the ease with which this shift could take place: “I saw four girls who had been led through the streets and I rushed toward them to take a photograph. At once I found myself at the front of the procession and the local people thought I was the female soldier who had captured them, or something like that, and I was kissed and congratulated at the same time as slaps and spits rained down on the unfortunate girls”.