L’Épuration | Robert Capa
Iconic Photos reports from a wonderful exhibition in Musée du Quai Branly
On Sunday, as rain gently swept across its windows, I strolled through the Quai Branly Museum’s new exhibition, Cheveux Chéris: Frivolités et Trophés (‘Beloved Hair: Trophies and Trifles’). A series of photographs made me pause and ponder: they showed l’épuration (purification or purge) where France rose up against Nazi ‘collaborators’. Taking a cue from the “purification” of Republican women in Spain in the 1930s, French women who slept with the Germans were marched on to public squares and shaved.
Capturing one such grisly humiliation was no other than Robert Capa. On 18th August 1944, just a week before the liberation of Paris, Capa was in Chartres, where a young women who bore a child to a German soldier was shaved bald by a mob, who paraded her through the town with her three-mouth old child. Back in 1941, 19-year old Simone Touseau had fallen in love with Erich, a German soldier in charge of the local military bookstore. Erich was eventually transferred to the Eastern Front, and invalided back to his native Bavaria. On hearing the news, Simone had volunteered as a nurse in Munich, where she re-met her lover in September 1943. She was repatriated to France in late November 1943, pregnant. (Read more here in French).
In many other towns, scenes were uglier as women were stripped, their heads shaved and their faces painted with swastikas for what many villagers, men and women alike, considered as ‘collaboration horizontale’. This stigmatization of ‘The Shorns’ was, according to Patrick Buisson writing in Années Erotiques, a “reaffirmation of the country’s rights over the women’s bodies and the recovery of male control over women’s sexuality”.
Buisson describes how the Nazi Occupation left the French in a state of what he calls “erotic shock”. Under an atmosphere charged with emotions of triumph, humiliation and suppressed rage, the population found escape in debauchery, exploring “new territories of pleasure” – having sex in cinemas and Metro stations during air-raid alerts. Even Simone de Beauvoir joined in; “It was only in the course of those nights that I discovered the true meaning of the word ‘party’,” she later wrote. In Germany, French prisoners bedded local girls to take revenge for the rape of the homeland; meanwhile in France, women made themselves available to the invaders, some even encouraged to infect German soldiers as sabotage; in 1942, despite the fact that two million Frenchmen were in prisoner-of-war camps, the French birth rate soared.
These dark years cast a long shadow over France. Its leading newspaper, Le Temps, which had continued its publication during the Occupation, was closed as pourrie (rotten), and was replaced by Le Monde. They also quietly put away their berets, which came to symbolize the Frenchman under a Nazi Empire where everybody had insignia and clothing identifying who they were. As Richard Cobb notes, “the beret had somehow lost its innocence. It had become politically contaminated… henceforth associated with organised killing.”
As for other collaborations, they took on many different shapes and hues. Coco Chanel had a torrid affair with a Nazi officer, with whom she lived at Paris Ritz throughout the Occupation. Jewish Gertrude Stein worked for the Vichy government, translating anti-Semitic speeches by Marshal Philippe Pétain, even comparing Pétain to George Washington. Maurice Chevalier and Édith Piaf sang before French and German audiences. Picasso, whose art was officially banned, continued to paint in his Left Bank apartment. More than two hundred new French films were made, including Marcel Carné’s classic, Les Enfants du paradis. Thousands of books were published by authors as different as the virulent anti-Semite Céline and the anti-Nazis Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Publisher Gaston Gallimard let a German-selected editor run his prestigious Nouvelle Revue Française; in turn, he was able to publish books by authors unsympathetic to the Nazis.
So I spent the night reading And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding. The book begins with a quote by Sir Anthony Eden, who saw both world wars: “If one hasn’t been through the horrors of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that.” He was talking about collaboration, but its messy aftermath perhaps sadly applied as well.