In June of 1940, Nazi Germany was kicking about Europe, just being a real group of assholes, as they were wont to do. As big a group of assholes they were, they had not yet evolved into their final asshole form – they were still the Charmeleon to the Charizard of terrible they would soon become. They were “reincorporating” surrounding nations, with France on the immediate horizon, but still had this issue with the Jews. They were EVERYWHERE, with prior efforts to force them to emigrate not taking hold as they had wished (many European Jews interpreted the Nazis’ hostile actions through Kristallnacht and programs encouraging them to leave as a sign they should leave, but many other stayed). Enter: the Madagascar Plan, where the Nazis would shove all the Jews onto boats and ship them to Madagascar.
(I apologize if this all seems too flippant for a truly atrocious period in human history, but I am trying to keep this as light as possible while avoiding being contemptuous, because I think this is an interesting wrinkle of history not many people are familiar with.)
The Nazis were manhandling the French, as everyone in history tends to (excluding all those years Napoleon fought the entire world and won), but the Nazi domestic leaders didn’t know what to with all these Jewish people they had been accumulating as they romped around the continent. Obviously, they couldn’t just STAY, because they were the root of all evil in the world, but they also were not embracing the opportunity to leave as they had hoped (estimates suggest roughly 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had voluntarily left by 1939), when one of the heads of the German Foreign Office, Franz Rademacher, figured, ‘hey, the French have this huge tropical island we could drop all of them off at!’ This would get rid of the Jews, plus give them a beautiful tropical island all to themselves. I like to imagine Rademacher figured all these people who had lived in Europe for generations as cobblers or grocers being plotted in the middle of a jungle would lead to a whole bunch of wacky sitcom-esque hi-jinks with monkeys – think Gilligan’s Island but everyone is the Professor.
This would not be the case. Madagascar is a relatively inhospitable territory still today, so you can imagine what it was like in 1940. Yes, France had colonized it, but really only because Africa was treated like one of those game show cash boxes where a fan whips loose bills around – you just grabbed what you could regardless of the practicality or actual use. So Madagascar – useless, remote and inhospitable, with barren lands where the Nazis figured the Jewish population would succumb eventually to the brutal conditions anyway, all of this governed as a police state under the SS. So… the Nazis didn’t originally want to outright kill Jews, but was totally cool if they just, ya know, happened to die.
As of August 15, 1940, this plan was a go, with Adolf Eichmann calling for one million Jews per year for the next four years be relocated to Madagascar. Giving the eventual alternative, this could be confused as a humane alternative, but if we look closer, German experts estimated that – at best – 7,000 families could be reasonably accommodated on the vastly underdeveloped island, with many others stating 500 families was the best the Nazis could reasonable expect to live there. So this was not quite as benevolent as it originally seemed once you realize they were no longer okay if Jewish prisoners died, but were actively banking on the fact most would perish in order to make room for others.
How did this plan get so close to fruition and then fall apart? Reports suggest that this plan was considered so certain, construction of Polish ghettos were ceased nationwide. Germany had very few ships to spare for a long trip to the African coast, which was implausible due to the British blockade placing them essentially on lock-down. The Nazis figured, once they repossessed Madagascar from France, they would be on to hammering Britain into submission, relieving them of the blockade as well as supplying them with suitable merchant ships. Once they began to struggle against Britain, the Nazis turned for help to Soviet Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, who had originally endorsed the idea and agreed to ship Russian Jews as well to the island, but ignored the plea to help by lending ships.
The Nazis had kept the Jews imprisoned in ghettos around Poland, but figured they could be shipped to Siberia after they flipped the script on the Soviets and conquered them. If you’re rusty on your World War II history, England did not succumb to the Nazis, and Russia turned out to be a bit more of a dilemma than anticipated. Within a year, the Madagascar Plan was discarded and the Holocaust had began shortly after.
Lest we end on the most distressing of terms, let’s consider had this worked out. Not the Nazi resettlement plan, which was essentially a death sentence, but one of the earlier plans to do so (German and Polish Jews had independently investigated the legitimacy of relocating and establishing a Jewish state in 1885 and 1937, respectively). Had a fair number of Jewish families been permitted to settle without the existential threat of a police state that would just as prefer them dead, imagine if Madagascar had been used instead of modern-day Israel as a designated Jewish state.
Geographically, Madagascar is 226.6k square miles whereas Israel is 8.5k square miles if we include the disputed West Bank, and provides far more available natural resources like chromite, coal, salt and bauxite in addition to an expansive fishing and ocean shipping industry rather than a relatively small reserve of crude oil in Israel (sorry if this feels like a seventh grade social studies class). The Jewish population would likely have resisted this alien terrain seeing as how their religious beliefs lay just as significant a claim to Jerusalem and the region as do modern day Palestinians. Without really diving into that whole thing, we would probably STILL talk about a one- or two-state solution in Israel, albeit without nearly the intensity we currently do. The Jewish stereotype of well-educated white collar families would be likely be replaced with Jewish sea captains and miners, which is probably the furthest apart two stereotypes could be. A Jewish nation in the Indian Ocean would not face the persistent existential threat posed by Iran, Egypt and Syria, but would probably would find some new neighbors outraged by their presence (sorry native Malagasians!) (and let’s be honest, the Iranians – I have a hunch they’re going to piss-y with a Jewish nation-state no matter where it is). Madagascar would likely not be the forgotten outpost it essentially is today, and would not have immediately fallen in disrepair because the rest of the world forgot about it too. This is my new favorite historical what-if.