This Day in Jewish History

1940: Eichmann Unveils Plan to Deport Jews to Madagascar

Nazi Germany envisioned expelling all Europe's Jews to Madagascar, using a defeated Britain's ships, but WWII didn't work out that way.

The streets of Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, Wednesday June 7, 2006.
Marc-Andre Pauze, Bloomberg

On August 15, 1940, Adolf Eichmann, the SS official in charge of elimination of the Jews, published a memorandum in which he outlined a plan for deporting the Jews of Europe to the island of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean.

The idea of making a Jewish homeland out of Madagascar, at the time a French colony off the coast of Mozambique, had been around for some time. In his book, “In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel,” Adam Rovner discusses the Freeland League, an offshoot of the Zionist movement that in the 1930s attempted to advance Madagascar as one of several options outside of Palestine for Jewish settlement, especially as the atmosphere in Europe became increasingly hostile to Jews.

In 1937, the Polish government, too, confronting rising anti-Semitism in the country, sent a team to Madagascar to examine the possibility of the island absorbing the country’s roughly 3 million Jews. When they returned from Africa, however, the experts reported that the difficult conditions there made it unrealistic to consider sending more than 7,000 families there.

Within the Third Reich, the idea was seriously considered for a period of several months during mid-1940, and in fact was a point of contention between the Nazi foreign ministry and the Reich Security Head Office.

Just a new place to scheme from

It was anticipation of the successful German invasion of France, in June 1940, that put Madagascar on the table. The island was a French colony, and so the idea was raised of demanding, as part of its surrender, that France agree to make Madagascar available for the deportation of Jews. American Jewry would be pressed to fund the vast operation of transporting the Jews there, and France would be obligated to find an alternate home for the 25,000 French citizens then living on Madagascar.

On June 3, 1940, Franz Rademacher, the head of the German Foreign Ministry’s Jewish Department, prepared a detailed proposal related to Madagascar. Referring to the invasion of France, he wrote that, “The approaching victory gives Germany the possibility, and in my view also the duty, of solving the Jewish question in Europe. The desirable solution is: All Jews out of Europe.” 

Rademacher imagined Madagascar as a colony that the Jews would run themselves, with “their own mayors, police, postal [service] and railroad”). Nazi party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, however, warned that, given autonomy there, “the Jews would only use it as a world center in which to carry on machinations.”

Rademacher’s plan went to Ribbentrop, who discussed it with Adolf Hitler, and the two latter men even took it up with Benito Mussolini on June 18.

Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.
The Federal Archive

When Reynhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Head Office, got wind of the plan, however, he demanded that oversight for it be transferred to his office, which is how Adolf Eichmann became involved.

Foiled by Britain's resilience

On August 15, 1940, Eichmann and his associate Theodor Dannecker brought out their pamphlet on the “Madagascar Project.”

It imagined a Europe with no Jews. The deportation of the Jews would be carried out by the British merchant marine, after the anticipated invasion and defeat of the United Kingdom that autumn.

Eichmann went so far as to propose that two ships leave Europe for Madagascar each day, each one carrying 1,500 Jews: Over the course of four years, it would then be possible to evacuate four million Jews from the continent.

In contrast to what Rademacher imagined, Eichmann’s Jewish colony would be run as a giant prison camp, administered by the SS. Significant numbers of Jews would be expected to die during the voyage to Africa, and many others due to the primitive conditions they would encounter in Madagascar.

Once Germany lost the Battle of Britain, however, it had to postpone its invasion of the U.K. That in turn meant that Britain’s merchant fleet was not at Germany’s disposal. The Madagascar plan stalled.

By early December of 1941, Germany’s attempt to conquer Moscow had been repelled, and the United States had entered the war. Now, Hitler began planning for the immediate murder of the Jews, and Heydrich decided that this would be best accomplished by establishing death camps just inside the occupied areas of Poland.