The greatest danger in Paris is the widespread and uncontrolled presence of whores. - Heinrich Himmler
At 11 AM on November 11th, 1918 Germany signed the armistice which ended the First World War. In observance of the event November 11th was named Armistice Day in many countries, and later it was rededicated in the Commonwealth as Remembrance Day (to commemorate all war dead) and in the United States as Veterans Day (to honor all veterans). One year ago today I presented the story of Mata Hari, the most famous courtesan of World War I, and today I’d like to tell you a little about the French prostitutes of World War II and the shameful way they were treated after the liberation.
When the Nazi war machine occupied France in May of 1940, any business which wanted to remain in operation had to deal with the Germans. Shops, cafes, tradesmen and filles de joie had to accept German soldiers as customers or literally starve; the Germans seized 20% of all produce, 50% of the meat and 80% of the champagne, and what was not seized outright was purchased at the confiscatory rate of one reichsmark per twenty francs. In Paris, the luxurious brothels of the Pigalle district (which was also home to the Moulin Rouge and Grand Guignol) were placed under direct military control and were only allowed to serve German officers. And though independent whores were under no such restriction, they had little choice but to accept German troops into their beds if they wanted the only currency which could actually buy anything anymore. Nor were the professionals alone; many single French women, or married ones whose husbands had been killed, wounded or captured, were forced to prostitute themselves to the enemy in order to provide for themselves and their children. Even those with an income might find themselves hard-pressed; the ration allowance provided by the Vichy government was a scant 1300 calories a day (roughly two-thirds what an active adult woman needs and one-third the intake of a healthy teenage boy), and the only way to get extra coupons, goods or hard currency (to buy things on the black market) was to become what Frenchmen angrily called “a mattress for the Boche”. Nor were all of these liaisons voluntary; landladies were often forced to billet troops (who then took what they pleased, as ever happens in such situations), and French streetwalkers were no more able to refuse the trade of unprincipled German soldiers than American streetwalkers can refuse the trade of the police; as in the latter case, they were lucky if they got paid.
Of course, this sort of behavior took its toll; condoms were as much in short supply as anything else, and as regular readers know men in positions of armed authority over women often refuse to use them even when they’re available. The result? An epidemic of syphilis (blamed, of course, on the whores rather than amateurs or the soldiers’ own stupid behavior) among the occupying troops which was so serious that Heinrich Himmler persuaded the Führer to order the manufacture of blow-up sex dolls which could be issued to the troops so they wouldn’t have to rely on French hookers. This plan, dubbed the Borghild Project, was dropped two years later when it was found that soldiers wouldn’t carry the dolls for fear of ridicule if they were captured.
The officers, who were employing the high-class doxies of the brothels, had no such problems, nor did most of them abuse their companions; in fact, some of them later reported that the Germans were better, cleaner and more generous clients than the Frenchmen they were used to. Because of this, many of them did quite well for themselves during the occupation, a fact which was to return to haunt them later; they, and the other women who managed to feed themselves and their own by supplying sex to those in control, were subjected to horrible treatment after the liberation.
French men who felt emasculated by the humiliatingly-rapid conquest but had lacked the balls to join the resistance and fight back, women who had been unwilling or unable to use their sexuality to provide for their children, and petty collaborators eager to turn attention away from their own actions, all conspired to revenge themselves on the whores (both professional and amateur). Many of them were simply envious of those who had survived the occupation without severe privation, but while they couldn’t openly attack the merchants, restauranteurs and other businesses who had survived in the same way, the harlot is always a popular scapegoat. Women who had prostituted themselves to the enemy were accused of collaboration horizontale (horizontal collaboration), a particularly nasty permutation of the Myth of the Wanton in which their actions were portrayed as the result of lust rather than business or survival. Typically, such women were captured by mobs of vigilantes called tondeurs (shearers), who shaved their heads and sometimes paraded them through the streets naked, but this mostly happened in cities; in rural areas which suffered less the women were generally simply ostracized, but in other areas where the resistance was strong they were sometimes killed.
Luckily, this didn’t go on for long; as order was re-established the French authorities took a dim view of such lynchings. Besides, the prostitutes were needed to control another invading army: that of the Americans. Instead of sex dolls, the American authorities distributed condoms, and soon Pigalle (or as the GIs called it, “Pig Alley”) was overrun to the tune of roughly 10,000 soldiers a day; as in Japan, the prostitutes were necessary to protect the virtue of unwilling French amateurs. But once the war was over and the Yanks had gone home, French politicians with the same thirst for vengeance as the tondeurs unveiled their own plan to take their frustrations out on defenseless women: they started a crusade to close the brothels, which had been tolerated since just after the French Revolution, and selected one Marthe Richard to front it. Richard claimed to have been an aviatrix, a spy in World War I and a resistance leader, and her popularity made it difficult for politicians to resist her campaign; in 1946, they succumbed to pressure and roughly 1400 maisons closes across France were shut down, with many of their estimated 20,000 workers ending up on the streets.
The police continued to keep prostitute registries until 1960, when they were finally destroyed; in the process of doing so the truth about the abolitionist champion Marthe Richard was discovered. It turned out that not only were her heroic exploits a total fabrication, but that she had been a prostitute herself. The woman who had been represented as a patriotic crusader against Nazi-loving whores had actually spent the first few years of the occupation in Vichy as a madam catering exclusively to German officers. By the time Richard’s hypocrisy was revealed many French citizens had recognized the stupidity of the brothel ban, but it was too late; France was now officially abolitionist, having passed laws against “living on the avails”, “procuring” and “soliciting” in addition to banning brothels. Moralists, control freaks and (in later times) neofeminists have prevented any discussion of repealing these oppressive laws (despite the fact that prostitution itself is still legal) and now there is talk of imposing the repulsive Swedish Model on the country. In a sense, this is just a continuation of the outrages perpetrated by the tondeurs; like their actions, the Swedish Model is nothing but misogyny, envy and vengeance dressed up in righteous indignation drag.