Certain aspects of World War II remain taboo subjects in France, even among people who were not around at the time. For those of us whose country has not been occupied for hundreds of years, it’s difficult to imagine how divisive the German Occupation was. Communities and families were riven by different loyalties, by self-interest and by the desire simply to keep your head down and survive. These divisions continued long after the fighting was over, and led to often violent recriminations.
One of the most divisive actions of the Vichy Government was to establish in 1943 the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO), the enlistment of young French people as forced labour in Germany. Around 600,000 went in the end. It’s well known that some of those who evaded deportation joined the Resistance (although not as many as is sometimes claimed).
What is less well known is the reaction to the deportees on their repatriation in 1945. Not collaborators, Résistants, prisoners of war or voluntary workers, their status was ambiguous.
I’ve just finished reading Lendemains de Libération by Daniel Crozes. His father was enlisted for the STO but always refused to talk about it afterwards, and so Crozes used contemporary diaries and accounts by others as the basis for his novel. I don’t think his books are translated into English, so you’d have to read it in French.
The story concerns a young man who returns to Aveyron in 1945, having spent two gruelling years in an Austrian munitions factory. His father refused to pull strings to prevent his deportation. In 1945 he experiences hostility from some of his fellow Aveyronnais, who accuse him of collaboration. The novel follows his fight for recognition and rehabilitation.
The STO followed an earlier scheme of 1942, la Relève, by which French workers were encouraged to volunteer for work in Germany in exchange for French prisoners of war. Three workers equalled one POW in theory. In practice, fewer workers than expected were recruited (around 60,000) and the scheme was considered a failure.
By late 1942, German workers were drafted into the Wehrmacht to fight on the Eastern Front, which was swallowing up manpower. Under pressure from Fritz Sauckel, “the slave master of Europe”, who was responsible for labour deployment, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval drew up a law enacted in February 1943, requiring French people over 20 to be subject to the STO. In the first wave, those born between 1920 and 1922 were required to go to Germany.
Sauckel’s demands for labour became increasingly heavy during 1943, but his quotas were never achieved because of evasion by potential conscripts. Far from achieving its ends, the STO served to turn public opinion against the Vichy regime.
By the end of 1944, around two million French people were in Germany. They included about 1.2 million prisoners of war, 600,000 STO workers and around 40,000 people who had voluntarily gone there to work.
In our département, Tarn-et-Garonne, there is evidence of violence against returning STO workers, especially against women. Most of the deportees were men, but women were not excluded from the STO. A report I found stated that the préfet had to take special measures to protect women from violence by arresting them on their arrival at the station. Two female returning deportees in Moissac had their heads shaved.
The problem was that some people made no distinction between those who went voluntarily to work in Germany and those who were constrained to do so. They were treated indiscriminately as traitors and “collabos”. In any case, some of the volunteers went because they could not find work in France or lived in poverty.
Monsieur C., a neighbour who died about 15 years ago, might have been deported to Germany under the STO. Apparently, having been “liberated” by the Russians, he didn’t return to France for several years after World War II. He would now have been around 98, which would make him of the age group eligible for the STO. I wonder what sort of reception he encountered on his return. Few people are around who would remember and they might not wish to talk about it.
In the complex and highly-charged post-war situation, there was plenty of settling of scores, legitimately or not. The returning STO workers were dropped into this poisoned atmosphere. There were sinners as well as saints among them, I’m sure, but they had to wait until 2008 to achieve official recognition as “victimes de travail forcé en Allemagne nazie” (victims of forced labour in Nazi Germany).
In a short post, I can’t hope to capture the nuances of this intricate and sensitive subject, but I have resolved to find out more about it.
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