- Writing Madagascar Back into the Madagascar Plan
For all that is known of the infamous "Madagascar Plan" to send European Jews to the Indian Ocean, both its origins and its dénouement remain shrouded in mystery. On the basis of primary research in archives and libraries in Madagascar, the author of this article suggests that the Madagascar Plan rested upon a widely held belief that the Malagasy claimed a distant Jewish ancestry. He then shows how local authorities, contexts, and actors contributed to the demise of the project in the 1930s.
Seldom has an abandoned project elicited as much attention as the infamous Madagascar Plan to send European Jews to the vast Indian Ocean isle.1 Its diverse incarnations have been studied by a host of scholars, including Magnus Brechtken and Hans Jansen, who in 1997 produced the first book-length studies devoted to the tortuous history of this fantastic project.2 Despite this scholarly attention, however, Madagascar seems to have been written out of the Madagascar Plan. In this article, I posit, first, that the island was chosen not as a result of some arbitrary exotic fantasy or some blindfolded stab at a globe, but rather on the basis of voluminous studies pointing to the Jewish ancestry of the Malagasy. Second, I argue that local considerations proved decisive in the late 1930s, scuttling perhaps the most viable version of the Madagascar Plan. What follows, then, is a two-part reconsideration of the plan. For all that has been written about the scheme, both its origins and its outcome remain misunderstood.
A Contentious and Protean Plan
Historians generally concur that the idea of sending Jews to Madagascar originated with the German antisemite Paul de Lagarde in 1885. They recognize, too, that it was appropriated, callously exploited, and desperately embraced by diverse actors. Frenchmen, Poles, Zionists, Nazis, Americans, Britons, even Japanese—all expressed interest in a version of the plan at some point. Beyond that, there is little agreement. Was the Madagascar Plan a "smoke screen," a "phantom solution," a "fictional device," and a "chimera," as Leni Yahil's pioneering work suggests?3 It is certain that the plan had, in Christopher Browning's words, "exercised a fantastical attraction for European anti-Semites"4 for decades before the Nazis came to power. But was it tantamount to deportation, or even a "death sentence" for the [End Page 187] Jews, to paraphrase Magnus Brechtken? Were its Nazi proponents ever serious about wanting to carry out the plan, and if so, when did they abandon it? The fact that David Irving and the underworld of Holocaust deniers invoke the existence in 1942 of the Madagascar Plan as proof of their views underscores how sensitive a topic this has become.5
A brief survey of recent and older scholarship can provide satisfactory answers to most of these questions. Vicki Caron has pointed out that, in the 1930s, Jewish organizations were not universally seduced by the Madagascar Plan. In France and Poland, some Jewish organizations resisted the initiative on the grounds that it set a precedent for random expulsions. Others opposed it because they deemed Madagascar's environment "insalubrious" and, therefore, in the words of Univers israélite editor Raymond-Raoul Lambert, a dangerous "mirage."6
Yahil and Brechtken demonstrate conclusively that in the Nazi variant of the plan Madagascar was envisioned as a punishment—if not an outright death sentence—for Jews.7 Although acknowledging that it was "not yet the Final Solution," Christopher Browning sees the plan as a critical forerunner to the Holocaust, one that was already "genocidal in its implications."8 In this view, the Madagascar scheme constituted a kind of "penultimate solution."
The questions of sincerity and feasibility can likewise be resolved through a survey of recent research on the Madagascar Plan. On several occasions in the mid- to late 1930s, the plan seemed to come within a hair of being realized by Polish or French authorities. Caron documents the socialist French colonial minister Marius Moutet's receptivity in 1937 to the idea of "limited" Jewish immigration to Madagascar. A positive outcome seemed so close to fruition, Caron notes, that in November 1937 French and...