Vichy, France September 4, 1942

Because so many young German men were needed on Germany’s Eastern Front to engage the Soviet Army, Adolf Hitler, toward the end of spring 1942, insisted that the French collab­o­ra­tionist govern­ment of Philippe Pétain, whose capital was in the central France town of Vichy, assign some 350,000 French workers to fill the gap in the labor supply avail­a­ble in Germany. On June 22, 1942, Vichy prime minis­ter Pierre Laval announced the enact­ment of the relève, whereby French workers were encouraged to volun­teer to work in Germany to secure the release of upwards of 1.6 million French soldiers (a kind of personnel swap) who were captured in the Battle of France (May–June 1940), and who were held in prison camps in Germany and Eastern Europe or worked in German-run facto­ries, mines, or on farms. Only about 17,000 French workers, mostly unem­ployed laborers and not the tech­ni­cally skilled workers Nazi Germany needed to conduct its war against the Allied powers (prin­ci­pally the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union), had signed up by August 1942, despite times being hard.

And so on this date, September 4, 1942, Pétain and Prime Minister Laval signed off on the “loi du 4 septem­bre 1942 rela­tive à l’utili­sa­tion et à l’orien­ta­tion de la main-d’œuvre,” or “Law of 4 Septem­ber on the use and guid­ance of the work­force.” The legis­la­tion led to the estab­lish­ment in February 1943 of the Service du travail obli­ga­toire (com­pul­sory labor ser­vice), or STO as it was com­monly referred to. The STO was a national draft, appli­ca­ble to German-occupied France in the north and west of the coun­try as well as the Free Zone (Vichy France). Every French male aged 18 to 50 and every unmar­ried woman aged 21 to 35 was required to give two years’ ser­vice to work in either Germany or France as a sub­sti­tute for ser­vice in the mili­tary. There was a mad scramble for defer­ments: women sought mar­riage part­ners, young men joined the police force or looked for work on the rail­road or in mines. Still, roughly 600,000 to 650,000 French­men wound up working in Greater Germany (Germany, Austria, parts of Poland and Czecho­slo­va­kia) between June 1942 and July 1944. French employers were out­raged at being deprived of so many skilled workers. One million French workers remained in France, working in facto­ries in the service of Germany, either willingly or as forced labor. After the Soviet Union and Poland, France was Germany’s largest forced labor provi­der, deliv­ering the Nazis the largest num­ber of skilled workers. Some 250,000 French POWs were also forced to work for the Reich from 1943 onwards, having been “reclassified” as civilian workers.

It is unclear how many French POWs were repatri­ated under the relève requi­si­tions of June 1942 and the later STO com­pul­sory labor levies (prob­a­bly few) except to say that by August–Septem­ber 1944 nearly 600,000 French POWs had been reclas­si­fied by the Germans as Zwangs­arbeiter (forced laborers) along with 654,782 French civil­ians. What is clear is that Vichy labor legis­la­tion under­mined the legit­i­macy of Pétain’s collab­o­ra­tionist regime and increased active resis­tance to the German occu­piers. Many fami­lies schemed to pre­vent their members affected by French law and the general census of French workers from being iden­ti­fied as eli­gi­ble workers. The French Protes­tant church boldly asserted that there was an “insur­mount­able” con­tra­diction between the Gospels and forced labor. French bishops and arch­bishops met in con­fer­ence and declared it was not a sin to evade the STO. A sig­nif­i­cant number of young people who dodged the STO joined the maquis, quasi­guerrila groups that grew into a power­ful force to harass Vichy and German autho­ri­ties in 1943 and 1944. In Paris alone, the school popu­la­tion fell from nearly 200,000 in 1938–1939 to about 50,000 in the spring of 1944. STO con­scripts also formed the first among 35,000 French­men who escaped from France to North Africa to join the Free French, Charles de Gaulle’s govern­ment-in-exile, and the French Army of Lib­er­ation (L’Armée fran­çaise de la Libér­ation), which landed with the Allies in Normandy (Opera­tion Over­lord) and Southern France (Oper­a­tion Dra­goon) to expel the Germans from all of France in 1944 and defeat Hitler’s Germany in 1945.

French Forced Labor in France and Germany, 1942–1945

Paris workers await transport to armaments factories in Germany, June 1942 French colonial POWs, Southern France, 1942

Left: German and Vichy French officers stand in the middle of a group of Parisians, luggage at the ready, as they await trans­port in June 1942 to arma­ments fac­tories in Germany. Between March 1942 and the end of the war 400,000 French volun­teers and another 650,000 French men and women who were forcibly sent east worked in German-run fac­tories, mines, shipyards, public utili­ties, and on farms. Most returned to France after the war (many were treated as traitors in 1945), but many perished abroad, killed in Allied bombing raids or suc­cumbed to mal­nu­tri­tion and exhaustion at their work­sites. In all, 3 million French­men, including 1 million POWs, worked for the German war machine, in Germany or in France, either willingly or forced.

Right: Under German guard French colonial prisoners roll a huge spool of cable through streets in an unnamed city in southern France. Photo dated 1942 and captioned in German: “Französische Kriegsgefangene bei Zwangsarbeit” (forced labor).

French forced laborer in Berlin, 1943 Tunis Jewish work detail, December 1942

Left: A young French mechanic (Mechaniker) fulfills his com­pul­sory labor service (zwangs­ver­pflichtete Arbeit) in this Siemens photo­graph taken in 1943 at one of their arma­ments factories in Berlin. Albert Speer, Reich Minis­ter of Arma­ments and War Produc­tion for Nazi Germany, agreed with the con­clu­sion of the Vichy govern­ment that keeping French workers in France pro­ducing for the German war eco­no­my would mini­mize the number of young men heading for the hills to avoid being sent to Germany. Hilter approved Vichy’s and Speer’s request to grant immu­nity from con­scrip­tion levies for French men and women already employed in French enterprises producing goods for the German war effort.

Right: In this photo taken in Tunis, French North Africa, in December 1942, just after the German occu­pa­tion of southern France (i.e., Pétain’s Vichy France), Jewish males are seen being rounded up and placed in work details (zur Arbeitsleistung herangezogen).

Service du Travail Obligatoire (in French with French subtitles. You may want to skip the first 50 seconds)