From 1940 to 1944 Nazi Germany occupied northern and western parts of France, in what to this day remains a source of deep humiliation for the country. Moments after France was liberated in the summer of 1944, celebration expanded to include demonization, with Allied victors engaging in some of the same revenge tactics against women as their enemies. Many French women believed to have had children or collaborated with German occupiers were publicly humiliated. Sometimes this meant having their heads shaved; other times–even in addition to head shavings–it meant public beatings.
The decision to shave a woman’s head is deeply symbolic, imbued with gender power dynamics and, of course, totally medieval. A symbol of beauty, the Visigoths removed a woman’s hair in the dark ages to punish her for committing adultery, according to historian Antony Beevor. The practice was revived in the early 20th century, when French troops occupied the Rhineland: women thought to have had relations with French occupiers were shorn of their hair. During the Spanish Civil War, Falangists were known to shave the heads of women from republican families, too.
Incidentally, the Nazis–those whose practices you’d think that Allied forces and resisters would not seek to emulate–did the same thing during World War Two, ordering that German women who were believed to have slept with non-Aryans or foreign prisoners employed on farms have their heads shaved.
Head shaving quickly became a cultural ritual in liberated France, and one which Beevor says “represented a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation”. According to Beevor, once a city or town had been liberated, the shearers would “get to work”, and find so-called Nazi conspirators in need of shaming. After their heads were shaved, these women would be paraded through the streets–occasionally stripped, covered in tar or painted with swastikas. Many of those shaving women’s heads–known in French as tondeurs–were not actually part of the resistance, but collaborators who wanted to divert attention from themselves, says Beevor.
Many of the women whose heads were shaved came from the more vulnerable corners of French society: a large portion were prostitutes, others young mothers who accepted relations with German soldiers as a means to provide for their families while their husbands were away. Others still were single school teachers who had been bullied into providing lodging for Germans.
At least 20,000 women had their heads shaved during what came to be known as the “ugly carnivals”, with the misogynistic practice being replicated in Belgium, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands.