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Heads being shaved at concentration camps

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T he 65th anniversary of the D-day landings this week is an occasion to revisit joyful pictures of the liberation of France in But among the cheering images there are also shocking ones. These show the fate of women accused of "collaboration horizontale". It is impossible to forget Heads being shaved at concentration camps Capa's fallen-Madonna image of a shaven-headed young woman, cradling her baby, implicitly the result of a relationship with a German soldier.

The punishment of shaving a woman's head had biblical origins.

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In Europethe 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 Heads being shaved at concentration camps 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 inGerman 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.

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Also during the Spanish civil war, Falangists had shaved the heads of women from republican families, Heads being shaved at concentration camps them as if they were prostitutes. Those on the extreme right had convinced themselves that the left believed in free love.

It may seem strange that head-shaving, essentially a rightwing phenomenon, should have become so widespread during the leftist liberation euphoria in France in But many of the tondeurs, the head-shavers, were not members of the resistance.

Quite a few had been petty collaborators themselves, and sought to divert attention from their own lack of resistance credentials. Yet resistance groups could also be merciless towards women.

In Brittany it is said that a third of those civilians killed in reprisals were women. And threats of head-shaving had been made in the resistance underground press since There was a strong element of vicarious eroticism among the tondeurs and their crowd, even though the punishment they were about to inflict symbolised the desexualisation of their victim.

This "ugly carnival" became the pattern soon after D-day. Once a city, town or village had been liberated by the allies or the resistance, the shearers would get to work.

In mid-June, on the market day following the capture of the town of Carentan, a dozen women were shorn publicly.

In Cherbourg on 14 July, a truckload of young women, most of them teenagers, were driven through the streets. In Villedieu, one of the victims was a woman who had simply been a cleaner in the local German military Heads being shaved at concentration camps.

Many French people as well as allied troops were sickened by the treatment meted out to these women accused of collaboration horizontale with German soldiers. A large number of the victims were Heads being shaved at concentration camps who had simply plied their trade with Germans as well as Frenchmen, although in some areas it was accepted that their conduct was professional rather than political. Others were silly teenagers who had associated with German soldiers out of bravado or boredom.

In a number of cases, female schoolteachers who, living alone, had German soldiers billeted on them, were falsely denounced for having been a "mattress for the boches".

Women accused of having had an abortion were also assumed to have consorted with Germans. Many victims were young mothers, whose husbands were in German prisoner-of-war camps.

During the war, they often had no means of support, and their only hope of obtaining food for themselves and their children was to accept a liaison with a German soldier. Jealousy masqueraded as moral outrage, because people envied the food and entertainment these women had received as a result of their conduct.

When Arletty, the great actor and star of the film Les Enfants du Paradis, died inshe received admiring obituaries that did not mention the rumour that she had her head shaved at the liberation. These obituaries even passed over her controversial love affair with a Luftwaffe officer.

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But letters to some newspapers revealed a lingering Heads being shaved at concentration camps nearly 50 years later. After the humiliation of a public head-shaving, the tondues - the shorn women - were often paraded through the streets on the back of a lorry, occasionally to the sound of a drum as if it were a tumbril and France was reliving the revolution of Some were daubed with tar, some stripped half naked, some marked with swastikas in paint or lipstick.

In Bayeux, Churchill's private secretary Jock Colville recorded his reactions to one such scene. 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 years. So we were not the Heads being shaved at concentration camps judges.

The American historian Forrest Pogue wrote of the victims that "their look, in the hands of their tormentors, was that of a hunted animal". Also, women collaborators were forced to run the gauntlet and were really beaten. Elsewhere some men who had volunteered to work in German factories had their heads shaved, but that was an exception.

Women almost always were the first targets, because they offered the easiest and most vulnerable scapegoats, particularly for those men who had joined the resistance at the last moment.

Altogether, at least 20, women are known to have had their heads shaved.

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But the true figure may well be higher, considering that some estimates put the number of French Heads being shaved at concentration camps fathered by members of the Wehrmacht as high as 80, In Paris there were cases of prostitutes kicked to death for having accepted German soldiers as clients. And at the other end of the social scale, several women from the highest reaches of the aristocracy were sheared for consorting with German officers. But resistance leaders in Paris made a determined effort to stop all head-shaving.

While many allied troops were sympathetic to France's suffering under the occupation, a considerable number had their worst prejudices confirmed by what they saw. American troops who had never been abroad before tended to see France itself as an enemy country, despite the attempts of the military authorities to inform them of the true situation.

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Some officers gave orders to arrest or shoot any French civilians encountered in the immediate invasion areas. Certainly French men and women found with German weapons were shot on the spot before they had a chance to explain. The possibility that they might have been collecting these weapons for the resistance never occurred to the soldiers concerned. An extraordinary battlefield myth soon spread like wildfire.

This maintained that young French women, the lovers of German soldiers, were fighting as snipers against the allies. These rumours were soon picked by British and American war correspondents eager for sensational stories. But a number of incidents also found their way into official reports without any doubts expressed about their authenticity. For example a lieutenant with the American 1st Infantry Division reported that they had encountered "four women in German uniform as snipers in trees and five in the town.

I only saw one closely enough to identify her as a woman. She wore the German uniform and looked like a French woman. Churchill heard these stories of women snipers during his visit to Normandy on 12 June and wrote about them to Anthony Eden on his return.

British officers, however, later became increasingly sceptical of these "latrine rumours". Moral confusion, if not outright hypocrisy, existed on the allied side too.

At his airfield near Bayeux, Colville found it ironic when General Montgomery ordered all brothels to be closed. Undeterred and unabashed, several of the deprived ladies presented themselves in a field adjoining our orchard.

October 14, 2019

Lines of airmen, including, I regret to say, the worthy Roman Catholic French-Canadians, queued for their services, clutching such articles as tins of sardines for payment.

The French, meanwhile, were shocked by the attitude of some American soldiers, who seemed to think that when it came to young French women "everything can be bought".


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