Here’s a real prize I hadn’t learned about until recently: Latvian aviator Herberts Cukurs (pronounced “ZU-kurs,” I think–my Latvian is nonexistent). He is a reminder that one can’t carry out efficient monstrosities against other peoples without collaborators.
Cukurs was born in 1900 at Liepaja, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire. Easy math: that would have made him just too young for World War I, old enough to see his native Latvia become independent for the first time in recent history. A bright and energetic young man, his primary talents led him to a career designing and piloting aircraft. It’s fair to say he was to Latvian aviation what Lindbergh was to that of the United States.
Latvian independence did not last. In 1939, by which time Cukurs was a little old to be a grunt, the Soviet Union absorbed Latvia without open warfare. Given Soviet treatment of perceived nationalist leaders, before long plenty of Latvians were ready to pay Stalin’s NKVD back in cold coin. While nothing excuses Latvian collaboration with Nazi genocide, there is a difference between excusing an action and seeing it in context. In spite of the Soviet Union’s own persecution of Jews, historic reality is that Jews were slightly over-represented in Communist leadership; considering their treatment under the Tsars, one can understand that. In fact there is zero reason to imagine that Lenin and Stalin would have led any differently even had their governments included no Jewish people at all–but a fair number of Latvians didn’t see it that way. Those opposing the Soviet régime and already motivated toward anti-Semitism might seek reasons to discern an association that Nazi propaganda would inflame with everything in its power. Scapegoating is both awful and effective.
This dynamic explains without excusing a fair number of Western Nazi collaborators’ motivations: Some were religious and saw communism as the ultimate threat to faith. Some had personal reasons to loathe communism. Certainly the conduct of the young Soviet Union with its mass incarcerations, executions, and the brutal starvation its policies inflicted on Ukraine, would be enough to make at least some people see it as the greater evil when Latvia and the other two Baltic states receded behind the day’s Iron Curtain.
Many Latvians despised their new occupiers and would jump into bed with any force that might drive them out. The fact that two Waffen-SS divisions (the 15th and 19th) would later form from Latvian recruits tells us something. That driving-out occurred in fall 1941, when German fire and steel cleared Soviet occupiers from all three Baltic states.
For Latvia, having the Nazis drive out the Russians meant mixed emotions. Many Latvians chose the invaders’ side. Cukurs joined a Latvian auxiliary police unit in German service, the Arajs Kommando, named for its commander. Of roughly battalion strength, Arajs’s men did the Nazis’ dirty work of eradicating Latvian Jewry. Herberts Cukurs was responsible for much of that death, personally or through orders given. He became known as the Hangman of Riga.
As we know, Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union didn’t work out well for Nazi Germany and most of its henchcountries. The Arajs Kommando didn’t stick around, sensibly reasoning that the Soviet Union probably wasn’t going to start coddling turncoats. Its members retreated westward with German forces, Cukurs included. He survived that retreat and the war, and evaded Allied justice long enough to escape to Brazil. There he lived openly, operating a prosperous aviation business.
In 1965 the Mossad, of hunting-down-Adolf-Eichmann fame, came up with a plan to get at Cukurs by luring him to Uruguay on pretext of a business opportunity. It was an ambush–but one that didn’t go so well.
Cukurs was a big, powerful man in good physical condition, and he fought back with everything he had. His fury impressed the Mossad agents, but he eventually lost the battle. They shot him to death, left him in a trunk, and notified the media. Had the original plan been to bring him back to Israel for trial, as with Eichmann? I’m not sure. What I’m sure of is that Cukurs fought back, was subdued and then executed.
There is notable revisionism surrounding Cukurs in Latvia and (mostly) in world Holocaust denial circles. The most common complaint seems to be that he didn’t get a fair trial. Considering the number and percentage of Latvian Jews that died without a fair trial, that argument can cry me a river. Simply collaborating with the Nazis was bad enough, but the deeds of the Arajs Kommando were as bad as those of the Einsatzgruppen. If Cukurs hadn’t wanted to be associated with and complicit in Arajs’s deeds, I doubt he would have become Arajs’s deputy. Herberts Cukurs wasn’t stupid. He didn’t book on out to Brazil because he expected that an Allied trial would acquit him, or because he supposed the Soviets might forgive him.
If you want to know how modern Russian propaganda got the idea to try and paint its former fellow Soviet republics as havens for modern Nazis, here’s the genesis of that. At one time, former Soviet minority citizens had in large numbers embraced the Nazi invaders and did indeed help to carry out Nazi atrocities. Eighty years later, Russian leadership continues to make a meal of that reality, “confirmed” every time an actual far-right movement becomes visible (unless, of course, that far-right movement is working in Russian geopolitical interests). The way all Soviet people suffered at Nazi hands makes all such movements (that are beyond their control, at any rate) naturally concerning to Russia, even when this amounts to projecting. Right now the Russian leadership is making former SSRs’ neo-fascist movements look pretty tame.
As for Cukurs, we might be impressed by his ferocity; as far as feeling badly for him, not me. Had the Allies gotten hold of him he would have hanged. His flight bought him far more security and prosperity than he offered any of the Arajs Kommando’s victims. I’ll save my sorrows for the latter.