What does [Service du Travail Obligatoire (the wartime labor draft)] tell us about the broader nature of the Vichy regime? Most obviously, it shows how resistance, collaboration, passivity and Pétainism always overlapped. Not everyone who evaded STO, or who helped others to do so, was a resistant. Some réfractaires specifically refused to recall their experience in terms of the Resistance or, like Yves Laurent, they distinguished between Resistance and resistance. Some people avoided STO in ways that involved serving the German war economy or even in ways, such as joining the Milice, that involved outright collaborationism. The very confusion of labour policy in France in 1943 and 1944 makes it hard to classify actions in simple categories. Vichy was divided, as some officials sabotaged policies that were pursued by others. The Germans, too, were divided. Different leaders in Berlin had different views about how best to exploit French labour and, especially in 1944, German agencies in France were desperate to secure their own labour supplies even if they did so at the expense of other German employers. The result of this was that many people ‘resisted’ STO by ‘collaborating’ with some German agency.
Response to STO was not, however, simply a matter of institutions and political structures. Such responses were also rooted in French society. In important respects, the orders of Vichy and the Germans were mediated through French society. The direct use of physical force was rarely effective. Such force could frighten the whole community but it could not track down particular individuals, and violence by outsiders broke down the subtle networks of cohabitation on which the occupation rested. Vichy and the Germans could only make STO work by securing the cooperation of powerful individuals—not just, perhaps particularly not, people who held formal positions. This inevitably meant that the social hierarchies counted for much in the implementation of STO. Some of these hierarchies dated back before 1940. A young man who entered a grande école in 1940 stood a good chance of avoiding STO; a young man who entered Santé prison in 1940 stood almost no chance of avoiding it: it was highly likely that such a person would have ‘volunteered’ in order to escape the high mortality rates of Vichy prisons before 1943 and, if not, he would have been taken in handcuffs to the Gare du Nord.
Pre-war hierarchies were, however, modified by the special circumstances of the occupation. Members of the grande bourgeoisie were protected from being sent to Germany but often had to endure considerable discomfort in order to achieve this. Members of the urban lower middle class were probably less privileged in the context of STO than almost any other social group, including those who would have stood below them before 1940. Agriculture, sometimes a poor relation before 1940, did well and young peasants were probably the only social group who sometimes managed to avoid STO without enduring any other serious inconvenience.
Rooting STO in its social context means recognizing the degree of complicity in its execution. This complicity did not just involve institutions and elites. The very people that requis de travail [labor draftees] trusted—local notables and, most of all, their own fathers—often encouraged them to go to Germany. Men in authority (and it was mainly men who encouraged departures to Germany) felt that STO was a lesser evil. The departure of a particular cohort of young men, who had thus far avoided military service, was seen as a price worth paying to protect their communities and families from reprisals. As time went on, this calculation changed. The Germans and their French allies had more and more difficulty in tracing particular réfractaires or those who helped them and were increasingly prone to respond with random acts of violence. STO’s legitimacy diminished as it became clear how harsh would be the fate of those who had gone to Germany, and the chances of avoiding it increased as the liberation approached and the Maquis expanded. By the summer of 1944, the circumstances that had made many feel that young men should obey orders to go to Germany in the summer of 1943 seemed remote. By the time the surviving requis de travail returned home in the summer of 1945, the logic that had seemed to require their departure no longer fitted into France’s vision of herself. Some requis now found that they were blamed for going by the very men who had refused them help when they had tried to find escape routes, or that they were encouraged to keep quiet about their experiences by their own families.