In December 1938, French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet told German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop of a French plan to deport 10,000 Jews to Madagascar, a French colony. After the defeat of France in June 1940, the idea was taken up by the German Foreign Office. On July 3, 1940, Franz Rademacher, an official in the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Internal Affairs, produced a report entitled “The Jewish Question in the Peace Treaty,” in which he wrote: “The imminent victory gives Germany the possibility, and in my opinion also the duty, of solving the Jewish question in Europe. The desirable solution is: All Jews out of Europe.”
His main suggestion was that France “must make the island Madagascar available for the solution of the Jewish question,” that the 25,000 French citizens living there already should be resettled and compensated, and that “all Jews deported to Madagascar will from the time of deportation be denied the citizenship of the various European countries by these countries.” The idea was received enthusiastically by Adolf Eichmann’s section of the Reich Main Security Office, the umbrella organization for the German police and security forces, including the SS and its intelligence agency, the SD. His office noted in a memorandum sent to Rademacher on August 15, 1940, that “To prevent lasting contact between the Jews and other nations a solution in terms of an overseas island is superior to all others.”
Hosting Refugees and Migrants Is a Global Public Good
In preparation for deporting Jews to Madagascar, groups of Jews from Alsace-Lorraine and the areas of Baden and the Saarland (into which Alsace and Lorraine were incorporated following the defeat of France) were transported in sealed trains to the Gurs concentration camp in the south of France, to be held there in catastrophic conditions under which many, especially the elderly, died, prior to their journey overseas.
Stages of Dehumanization
The propaganda value of the Madagascar Plan was, from the Germans’ point of view, huge: They planned to trumpet their “humanity” in granting the Jews self-government — under German supervision, of course — on the island while preventing the creation of a Jewish “Vatican State of their own in Palestine,” as Rademacher put it. Furthermore, the Jews would “remain in German hands as a pledge for the future good conduct of the members of their race in America.”
The Nazis never managed to deport French or German Jews to Madagascar, as their failure to defeat Britain meant that the British Navy retained control of the Indian Ocean. But the Madagascar Plan had its value: It was an important mental stage in the process by which the Nazis moved from schemes to remove Jews from Germany, then from Europe altogether and then, during the war, to murdering Jews in situ, where they lived, and finally creating specially-designed extermination camps to which Jews were sent from across Europe, beginning with the Jews of occupied Poland.
Notions that the Jews would be left to create their own self-governing society were pure eyewash. The scheme was inherently genocidal in that there were no plans to provide for the deportees on their arrival. As the Holocaust historian Christopher Browning writes, the Madagascar Plan, which, “like a spectacular meteor … blazed across the sky of Nazi Jewish policy, only to burn out abruptly,” was “an important psychological step toward the road to the Final Solution.”
In the last few days, the UK press has reported that civil servants have been instructed to look at creating offshore centers for “processing” migrants and asylum seekers. The places mooted have been Moldova, Morocco, Papua New Guinea and the South Atlantic islands of Ascension and St. Helena, both British territories. None are straightforward options, for reasons of corruption and internal strife (Moldova, especially over Transnistria); lack of willingness on the part of the local authorities (Morocco), or sheer distance (PNG, to which there are no direct flights from the UK, is 8,500 miles away).
But the island solutions are the most remarkable. So remote that it is used solely as a transit point for goods on their way to the Falkland Islands, Ascension, like St. Helena, has a minute population, lies 5,000 miles from the UK, and the cost of building and staffing such a center would be astronomical. One begins to wonder whether these plans have been thrown out to the public in order to make the more likely decision to use decommissioned ferries and oil rigs in UK waters seem sensible.
A Threat Within and Without
There are important differences between the Nazis’ plans to deport Jews from Europe to Madagascar and the UK Home Office’s investigations into sending migrants as far as possible offshore. I am not suggesting that what the UK government is talking about is genocidal or that the idea is borne of hatred and fear of a specific group of people believed to be part of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy the British people, in the way that leading Nazis believed that Jews were a threat to the Aryan “race.” The Jews were believed to be a threat within, who had to be expelled; migrants to the UK are perceived as a threat from outside, whose entry into the country must be prevented, albeit a “threat” that resonates with those who believe that the UK is already being “Islamized,” meaning that the danger already lies within.
Nevertheless, the logic of what the Home Office is talking about does stem from the sort of fantasies and fears that have driven the persecution of minorities throughout modern history. The notion that the UK is full and cannot accept more immigrants, despite more than 40,000 deaths from COVID-19; the idea that migrants have chosen to come to Britain because they “know” they will receive better housing and welfare than long-established locals; the fear that migrants bring disease and crime, and that they will refuse to adapt to “our way of life” — all of this lies behind current and mooted policies that are as irrational as they are infantile.
The Australian policy of holding migrants in PNG or on Nauru in appalling conditions has resulted in spiraling mental and physical illnesses. The spending of huge sums of money by Frontex and by the UK Border Guard in the Mediterranean and the English Channel has not stopped migrants from traveling, and the hypocrisy of blaming people traffickers is eye-watering given that such criminal gangs only exist because of the lack of proper channels for migration.
It has been shown many times that the migrants who make the journey are among the most enterprising and energetic people in the world, desperate only to make better lives for themselves. Treating them like criminals will make them, many of whom already extremely vulnerable, ill. The cost to the taxpayer of running these centers will be far greater than the gain to the economy of allowing migrants in and letting them work.
Above all, the idea of sending migrants to far-flung places is a policy of fear and paranoia — a fear of pollution and paranoia about difference. It is a ludicrous, though deeply harmful concept, and one which will not stop migrants trying to get to the UK. Most important, it is one whose logic points only in the direction of increasingly radical measures. When we have a government that is willing to break international law in one context, how long will it be before the UK breaks it in another, with respect to human rights legislation or the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, even if only in a “specific and limited” way?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.