Who was the Butcher of Latvia? Before World War II Herbert Cukurs was a a national hero. He put Latvia on the map. If you’re looking for an American equivalent, think Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh. Cukurs was a big deal. But after the Nazis occupied Latvia, Cukurs became a monster, participating in the murder of 30,000 men, women, and even children. How did this decorated and ingenious aviator betray friends and neighbors and became a savage criminal with the blood of thousands on his hands?
In July 1941, the Germans invaded Latvia. They Nazis fought their way into the capital, Riga, and soon sent the Soviet soldiers, who had occupied Lativa for the previous year, running to the east. Another kind of horror emerged, one now directed at Jews.
The Nazis began passing anti-Semitic laws. They encouraged Latvians to direct their hatred at their Jewish neighbors. They declared that Jews had helped the Soviets to occupy Latvia and carry out atrocities. They said Jews had betrayed their country, and they needed to pay for it. It was a lie of course, but it worked. Round-ups began almost immediately. What added to the terror was that it was often their fellow Latvians who took the lead in the violence
BUt why did the Butcher kill some of his neighbors and spare others? Maybe he did it for the money? But there’s no record of him asking for any. Maybe he only saved young women? No, he actually spared at least one Jewish man, a doctor he’d known before the war. So what was it?
The testimonies of witnesses answer one question clearly: Cukurs was guilty. So why did he still have defenders? I found half a dozen eyewitnesses to his actions, and later I came across statements from fellow Latvians in his commando unit. They confirmed he’d been part of the massacres.
So why did he transform from hero to mass murderer? I went through other possibilities. Maybe he’d always been an anti-Semite and just hid it until the Nazis came. Maybe the Germans had forced him to kill. That was the explanation of many non-Germans who murdered Jews during the war. Maybe that was part of the answer. But then, I’d read a testimony talking about how the Butcher seemed to enjoy killing. There was more than one testiony. It just didn’t fit the idea that he was forced to do anything.
So I had no answers. Even the survivors in their testimonies couldn’t give a reason. Most of them were as baffled as I was. Maybe there were others who fit this pattern. Friendly towards Jews before the war and then joined in the massacres, but saved the occasional victim. Maybe there were historians who’d found killers like this, and that would help give some insight into Cukurs. I started making some calls. It was a start, a way to try to get inside Herbert Cukurs' mind.
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