Why you should care
Because there’s more to this bad guy than meets the eye.
It was a photo finish. Speeding cars kicked up clouds of dust as they screamed past the flag, and out sprang the grinning winner, a burly, broad-shouldered, dapper fellow who wouldn’t look out of place on any racetrack in 1920s France.
But a closer look revealed something a little funny about this macho figure — a few curves out of proportion and a smoother-than-expected face. This racing hero was Violette Morris, a woman designed to stun more than a few crowds in her time. Looking back, we might call her a badass pioneer for women — if only her story hadn’t taken a shocking turn onto the wrong side of history.
This butch lesbian went on to become such a ferocious Nazi that the French Resistance ordered her assassination.
When those shots were taken, Morris was at a strange time in her life. A nationally recognized athlete, she’d won the hearts of many. But her refusal to conform and her unabashed queerness were about to drive her out of town — and into a spiral that would see her betray her country and join the ranks of history’s most notorious murderers. This butch lesbian went on to become such a ferocious Nazi that the French Resistance ordered her assassination.
Morris knew she was different from an early age. When World War I broke out, she put her short-lived marriage on hold to become an ambulance driver and suddenly found herself in her element. As shells exploded and mud slicked beneath her tires, she tore through the network of trenches, helping wounded soldiers get out of harm’s way. From there, she shifted her life into the fast lane — not just behind the wheel — by jumping into women’s sports, excelling at everything from swimming and running to javelin throwing. She boxed, often beating male challengers, and played for the French women’s national soccer team, where she became known for throwing devastating punches, especially if it meant winning.
And win she did. Morris’ successes, especially her 1927 victory in the grueling 1,000-mile, 24-hour Bol D’Or race, brought her fame and international renown. Surprisingly, perhaps, many people didn’t seem to care that Morris was rocketing to fame while wearing short hair and men’s suits. Being butch in 1920s Europe was hard, but in big cities like Paris, queer scenes thrived — and not so far underground. Lesbians met, drank and danced in hopping bars like Le Monocle, where the famous Hungarian photographer Brassaï snapped a photo of Morris with an arm around a date. That photo caught the eye of novelist Francine Prose, whose recent book, Lovers in the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, is partly inspired by the “fascinating and enigmatic” Morris.
Prose tells OZY that her book began with questions about who Morris was and how she became a Nazi. But, like “all questions regarding the origins of evil,” there was to be no simple answer, she says.
It’s hard to know what was going through Morris’ head when she decided to throw her lot in with Hitler. But her relationship with France started to sour a year after her Bol D’Or win, when she was banned from the 1928 Olympics for wearing a suit. Her decision to get a double mastectomy — allegedly to fit into race cars better, but perhaps driven by a deeper discomfort with gender — left her further out in the cold.
But Morris’ larger-than-life personality, from her three-pack-a-day smoking habit to her sharp-dressed presence in Parisian nightclubs, made her a popular figure. She was well acquainted with people in the queer scene, as well as France’s best and brightest politicians, celebrities, athletes and debutantes. And that, combined with a personal invitation to the 1936 Berlin Olympics from Hitler himself, made her a perfect — if unlikely — Nazi spy.
Shortly before World War II broke out, the intelligence wing of the SS recruited Morris. Her connections brought some shocking information to the Nazis, from defense plans to blueprints of the latest French tanks. When Germany invaded France, Morris took her treason public: Now a Gestapo agent, she was in charge of dismantling Resistance operations and interrogating prisoners. Morris was in her early 50s, but her tremendous strength and brutal torture techniques earned her a horrifying nickname: the “Hyena of the Gestapo.” Which is why, in April 1944, the Resistance struck back, gunning her and other collaborators down as they went out for a drive.
An LGBT person, an acclaimed athlete and a Nazi, Violette Morris was a contradiction in terms. Living in a world that had no language for explaining who she was, Morris made her own rules. We can never excuse the “Hyena,” but her brutality serves as a reminder that things are often not what they seem.