All of the countries which were conquered by the Nazis had their economy pillaged and their labour force exploited. France was not an exception.
Economic exploitation in France started as early as 1940. The Germans imposed that a large portion of agricultural production be at their disposal and compelled large companies to produce for them. The occupant also encouraged French labourers to work in Germany. To facilitate their departure, the Germans opened recruitment offices in several cities of the Occupied Zone.
During the beginning of 1942, while the Third Reich was in need of increasingly more workers, the Germans demanded that Petain’s government actively participate to seek out French labourers. Pierre Laval, who had come back to the government in April of 1942, put in place a system of “Exchange.” In exchange for three volunteer workers, one French prisoner of war was liberated. The recruitment offices multiplied, including in the Southern Zone. Certain premises were requisitioned, and to facilitate hiring, French agents were put into the service of the Germans.
Volunteer departures were relatively numerous throughout the summer of 1942. However, their numbers did not attain the quotas fixed by the occupants. On 4 September 1942, the French government announced a law which related to the utilization and orientation of labour, prefiguring that of The Department of Mandatory Labour of 16 February 1943. Volunteer departures became less frequent. But they did not stop altogether. Up until the end of the war, French volunteer labourers continued to leave and work in Germany on their own free will.
Labourers volunteered to work in Germany for various reasons, which evolved as the war carried on. Their main motivations were the same which drove certain French citizens to join la Milice: political motivation, economic motivation or the desire to break away from a cumbersome past.
Jany Batissier was born in Moulins in 1909. He was promoted to police inspector in 1934. Four years later he was suspended by the Popular Front due to his extreme right militancy and membership of the Cagoule, a fascist-leaning anti-Communist group. But new professional opportunities arose for him during the Second World War.
Shortly after the creation of the French State, Batissier became one of Admiral Darlan’s personal guards. Late in 1942, he joined the Vichy Gestapo, directed by Geissler, and moved to Boulevard des États-Unis, in the heart of the German quarter. As his sister was Geissler’s mistress, he was rapidly promoted to head of a brigade. Until the Liberation, Batissier and his henchmen carried out numerous arrests in the Vichy region.
He was arrested in the spring of 1945, sentenced to death the following year and shot at Nevers on 18 July 1946.
Why did so many French men and women voluntarily collaborate with the Germans? If Batissier’s previous activities indicate that he was at least partly ideological motivated, many other French men and women agents collaborated with the Germans for other reasons.
The high wages paid by the Germans were difficult to refuse for many working-class men and women whose economic situation had constantly deteriorated since the beginning of the war, and several inhabitants of Vichy were lured by this bait. After his dismissal from the French Police and separation from his wife in 1942, Henri D. had serious financial difficulties. He became a black marketeer and collaborated with the Germans. He was hired as a Gestapo agent for 4,000 francs a month and in addition received bonuses of 2,000 to 10,000 francs for information given to the German police.
The first Germans arrived in Vichy in 1940. Following the occupation of northern France, several Nazi agents were sent to the Southern Zone, including to Vichy, to establish “relations” with the government.
During the first months of the Occupation, the German presence in Vichy was much more restrictive for the government than it was for the population, but from late 1941 this situation changed. Members of the Gestapo rose in number and after the occupation of the Free Zone in November 1942 they were literally everywhere. The principal Gestapo unit in the Allier was stationed in Vichy, with offices at Montluçon and Moulins.
In Vichy, they based themselves in boulevard des États-Unis, requisitioning twenty-five buildings including the Hôtel du Portugal. It was here that the Gestapo interrogated and tortured those it had arrested or had had arrested. A man employed in a nearby ministry recounted: “I start work at five in the morning. I go by bicycle. When I passed the Hôtel du Portugal, it was awful. I heard screams of agony coming from the cellar. They were torturing someone. It was horrific.”*
After the war, the Hôtel du Portugal was used by the Liberation Committee as an internment camp. As the two other camps in Vichy, the Concours hippique and the Château des Brosses, did not have the infrastructure for medical procedures, a camp hospital was created in the Hôtel du Portugal. Thirty prisoners could be hospitalised there at the same time, in the care of Doctor Lacarin, future mayor of Vichy. Another part of the building was used for the internment of prisoners who had conducted themselves badly at the Concours hippique and the Château des Brosses.
* Account by a ministry employee. Cited in G. Frélastre, Un Vichyssois sous Vichy, p. 22.