How Lithuania (Almost) Moved to Madagascar

Lithuania has always been at the crossroads between East and West, with hardly any moment in history when the people were not fighting for their freedom. The 20th century is no exception, but exactly then, a brand-new idea of ensuring security emerged.

Baobab trees along the rural road at sunny day in Madagascar
The famous alley of baobabs on the road from Morondava to Belo sur Tsiribihina in Madagascar. Baobabs grow not only on the roadside, but also singly throughout the area. They are remnants of a dense forest. Photo: iStock.com / mihtiander

Have you ever heard the story of how Lithuania almost relocated? It may sound unreal, but it truly almost happened. Imagine yourself around the year 1936. You’re living in the (then) Lithuanian capital of Kaunas. As a professor of geography at the university, you are a renowned public figure. Life seems pretty perfect. But the course of events in Europe takes another turn. From time to time, you hear about various constraints that are being put on Jews in Europe and the persecution of innocent citizens in Soviet Russia. Then, in 1938 Germany annexes Austria, which is the point when you finally realize that the danger is real.

Reserve Lithuania in Africa

black and white photo of Kazys Pakštas
Kazys Pakštas. Photo: SeriousThinker / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This is a brief glimpse into the life of pioneering Lithuanian geographer and political activist Kazimieras Pakštas. He coined the term “reserve Lithuania,” and yes, that is exactly what you are thinking of. The initial plan was for Lithuania to buy a piece of land in Africa or South America, something that Pakštas was actively searching for. He initially set his sights on Angola but ultimately settled on Madagascar. In 1938, he even met with the Lithuanian president and laid out an evacuation plan for the nation.  

Although he was greeted warmly, his reception never extended beyond friendliness. Right after the meeting, he was mocked as “bringing too much panic and unnecessary cowardice.” Thus, the Lithuanian people never evacuated to Madagascar.

Just two years afterward, the president was forced to flee his office in the dead of night on 15 June 1940, only eight hours before Red Army crossed the border. It remains unknown what he was thinking at that moment, but he probably recalled meeting the famous and slightly extravagant geographer.

The legacy of Kazimieras Pakštas

But why does it all matter today? Lithuania is not going to move to Madagascar any time soon – and hopefully, there will be no need to do so. Even though the threats that were prevalent then are no less dangerous today.

Just for a moment, let’s go back twenty years back in time. It was the early 2000s, and everything seemed almost perfectly fine. Russia was normal again, and the continent had not experienced any major warfare for half a century. At that time, a well-known Lithuanian playwright, Marius Ivaškevičius, was inspired by the Pakštas’s plight and wrote a novel called “Madagascar,” which proved to be incredibly successful in Lithuania and beyond.

Partly, the reason behind the success was the time it was published – 2004, the year Lithuania joined the EU. Thus, naturally, there was a need in the air to rethink the geopolitical ups and downs. Interestingly, if the initial idea was about moving somewhere, the book itself describes a “Lithuania that, in the end, never moved anywhere.” It is a satire that deploys irony and grotesque, with the goal of portraying the country and its people as they really are – sometimes sluggish, ignorant, and narrow-minded.

Craving for enemies

One of the most playful parts of the novel is a description of an innermost national desire to have enemies. Although there are plenty of them, Poland is described extensively as the conflict over the city of Vilnius lasted for decades. Both nations saw it as their own city, primarily because of the shared past in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

As a result, intense fighting over Vilnius continued for three years, starting in 1918, and the city remained in Polish hands for eighteen years. Thus, the author insists that even after relocating to Madagascar, no Lithuanian could live without his eternal Polish antagonist: “after masterfully developing our agrarian farm, we have to build the Black Vilnius – our reserve capital, as well as a Black Kaunas in case Black Vilnius is later seized by a neighboring Black Pole.”

It is not said so explicitly, but indirectly, the play suggests that one of the reasons that we lost our statehood was due to a lack of ability to cooperate and live in peace with our closest neighbors. Therefore, it would be irrational to relocate Lithuania to Madagascar, as we would probably just encounter a new nemesis there; rather, it would be crucial for us to move away from the old stereotypes and fears. As the tension in the region is peaking, there will be no better time to do so. 

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