When Liberation Meant Demonization: France’s “Ugly Carnivals”

Published June 19, 2017
Updated September 23, 2020

After France was liberated from German occupation, many within the country borrowed Nazi tactics to publicly shame women.

French Woman With German Baby Public Humiliation 1944
French Woman With German Baby Public Humiliation Shaved Head
French Head Shave Group
Women Bald
When Liberation Meant Demonization: France’s “Ugly Carnivals”
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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 imbued with gender power dynamics. In the dark ages, the Visigoths removed a woman's hair to punish her for committing adultery, according to historian Antony Beevor.

Centuries later, the practice was revived when French troops occupied the Rhineland. After the occupation ended, the 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.

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 II, ordering that German women who were believed to have slept with non-Aryans or foreign prisoners have their heads shaved.

After the war, 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.

In addition, 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.

Next, check out the most iconic images of the 1940s.

Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Cox, Savannah. "When Liberation Meant Demonization: France’s “Ugly Carnivals”." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 19, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/france-ugly-carnivals. Accessed June 25, 2024.