In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany hatched a seemingly outlandish scheme: exiling Europe’s Jewish population to the African island of Madagascar. Support for the proposal first picked up steam following a June 3 memo from the German Foreign Office, and it was nearly put into action before Allied gains in World War II made it untenable. Take a look back at the ruthless deportation plan that preceded the horrors of the Holocaust.

“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.” That was how Franz Rademacher, head of the German Foreign Office’s “Jewish desk,” began a memo to the Nazi high command in the summer of 1940. In the document that followed, he spelled out an audacious plan to banish millions of European Jews to the African island of Madagascar. The scheme called for the Jews to have their European citizenship revoked and their property and personal fortunes seized to help fund a new “super-ghetto” in the Indian Ocean. Once resettled, they would languish under the rule of a Nazi SS police force. Rademacher argued that the island reservation could be spun as propaganda to show the world the “generosity” of the German people. On an even more sinister note, he pointed out that “the Jews will remain in German hands as a pledge for the future good behavior of the members of their race in America.” The Jews on Madagascar would not just be exiles—they would also be hostages.

Franz Rademacher, architect of the Madagascar Plan, in 1968.
Franz Rademacher, architect of the Madagascar Plan, in 1968.
Karl Schnörrer/dpa/Corbis

Rademacher’s proposal was the most ambitious in a long line of attempts to expel Jews from Adolf Hitler’s “Third Reich.” Upon taking power in the early 1930s, the Nazis had implemented a series of repressive anti-Semitic policies that stripped Jews of their rights and forced many to flee abroad. The persecution ramped up after the beginning of World War II, when the Nazis began forcing Jews into camps and ghettos. Following an abortive plan to transform Poland’s Lublin district into a massive Jewish reservation, the Germans shifted their focus toward removing the Jews from the continent altogether. In a May 1940 letter to Hitler, SS chief Heinrich Himmler expressed his desire “…that the concept of Jews will be completely extinguished through the possibility of large-scale emigration of all Jews to Africa or some other colony.”

Madagascar presented itself as a possible destination in May and June 1940, when German forces began steamrolling their way across Western Europe. Victory over France seemed imminent, and with it came dominion over its vast colonial empire, which included Madagascar and several other parts of Africa. Franz Rademacher sent out the first of several memos on the “Madagascar Project” on June 3, and the idea quickly wormed its way through the upper echelons of the Nazi power structure. The likes of Adolf Eichmann and foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop endorsed it, and Hitler mentioned it during a meeting with Italian leader Benito Mussolini. In Poland, construction on the ghettos was temporarily halted in anticipation that they would no longer be needed. Jewish leaders were informed of the plan in a secret meeting in early July, and it wasn’t long before word leaked out into the streets. Adam Czerniakow, a Jewish official in Warsaw, noted that a German bureaucrat bragged to him that “the war would be over in a month and that we would all leave for Madagascar.”

Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann
Adam Guz/Getty Images Poland/Getty Images

Strangely enough, the idea of corralling Jews on Madagascar was nothing new. The plan was first proposed in 1885 by the German scholar Paul de Lagarde, whose writings were a major influence on Hitler. It was later touted by a wide range of politicians and anti-Semitic figures across Europe, some of whom subscribed to the erroneous belief that the Jews were the ancestors of the island’s Malagasy natives. In 1937, the Polish government even sent a fact-finding mission to Madagascar to investigate its feasibility as a new Jewish homeland. The delegation’s Jewish members had come back convinced that the island’s sweltering temperatures and flimsy infrastructure made it a poor choice, and they estimated it was capable of housing only a few hundred families.

Whether Madagascar could safely sustain a massive influx of immigrants was of little concern to the Nazis in the summer of 1940. By August, Rademacher, Eichmann and others had submitted several revised proposals to the Nazi high command. Their plans called for Germany to include provisions for a Jewish colony in Madagascar as part of any peace treaty with the French. The Germans would resettle and compensate the French colonists already living there, and then begin forcibly moving Jews to the island after the war at a rate of 1 million per year. To give the illusion of propriety, Madagascar’s Jewish arrivals would be allowed their own mayor, post office and police force, yet true power would rest with a Nazi police governor. Large swaths of the island would also be set aside for German military bases.

British forces landing on Madagascar, 1942.
British forces landing on Madagascar, 1942.
Imperial War Museum

Many Nazi leaders had come to see the Madagascar Plan as the ideal answer to the so-called “Jewish question,” but by September 1940, its future looked uncertain. The scheme had hinged on the Nazis quickly conquering Europe, and its progress stalled along with that of their armies. The main stumbling block was Great Britain, which stubbornly held out against a colossal aerial barrage during the Battle of Britain. The Nazis had expected to appropriate the vanquished Royal Navy to ferry Jews to Madagascar, but with Britain still standing, the logistics suddenly became unworkable. Germany didn’t have the ships to force the deportations on its own, and lurking Allied navies made the sea lanes impassable. In late-1940, the plan was shelved and all but forgotten. A final blow followed in May 1942, when British forces landed in Madagascar in an amphibious invasion dubbed “Operation Ironclad.” The island was in Allied hands by the end of the year.

In the end, no Jews were ever sent to Africa as part of the Madagascar Plan. Historians still debate what might have happened if they had been, but there’s little doubt that it would have been brutal. Scores of people would have succumbed to tropical diseases or starvation from lack of resources, and those who survived would have been subject to abuse or murder at the hands of the SS. With this in mind, many scholars argue that the resettlement scheme was tantamount to a death sentence. Others contend that it was all an elaborate ploy designed to mask Hitler’s true intentions to exterminate the Jews. At the very least, it was a move in the direction of the infamous “Final Solution” that was soon to follow. Less than a year after the Madagascar Plan was set aside, the mass murder of the Holocaust had begun.