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.
There are thousands upon thousands of joyful pictures of the liberation of France in 1944. But among the cheering images there are also shocking ones. These show the fate of women accused of “collaboration horizontale”. To sum it up, when a woman who had engaged in collaboration horizontale — that means having sex with occupying troops — was punished, her head was forcibly shaved as the first step. Depending upon how the partisans felt, she also might have been disrobed, tarred and feathered, and perhaps beaten.
The punishment of shaving a woman’s head had biblical origins. In Europe, the practice dated back to the dark ages, with the Visigoths. During the middle ages, this mark of shame, denuding a woman of what was supposed to be her most seductive feature, was commonly a punishment for adultery. Shaving women’s heads as a mark of retribution and humiliation was reintroduced in the 20th century. After French troops occupied the Rhineland in 1923, German women who had relations with them later suffered the same fate. And during the Second World war, the Nazi state issued orders that German women accused of sleeping with non-Aryans or foreign prisoners employed on farms should also be publicly punished in this way.
The humiliating scenes often took place in front of jeering crowds. Members of the resistance were suppose to be doing the shaving but in fact many of them weren’t from the resistance – they were in fact collaborators themselves seeking to divert attention away from themselves. Many of the collaborators were prostitutes or young mothers whose husbands were in prisoner of war camps. The only way they could feed themselves and their children was to have a liaison with a German.