Viktors Bernhard Arājs was born on 13 January 1910 in the town of Baldone, then part of the tsarist empire. His father was a Latvian blacksmith and his mother came from a wealthy family of Baltic Germans. Arājs attended Jelgava Gymnasium, which he left in 1930 for mandatory national defense service in the Latvian Army. In 1932, Arājs studied law at the University of Latvia in Riga, but never completed his degree. He was a member of the elite student fraternity "Lettonia", which may have helped him get a job with the Latvian police after he left the university. Arājs remained with the Latvian police until he was promoted to police lieutenant. During the Ulmanis dictatorship in Latvia 1934–1940, Arājs was a "low ranking provincial police officer" who, as a loyal administrator, dutifully "distanced himself officially from the Pērkonkrusts", the Fascist party in Latvia.
The war between Germany and the Soviet Union began on 22 June 1941. Shortly afterwards, the Red Army abandoned Riga to the advancing Wehrmacht. Arājs then took over an abandoned police precinct house at 19 Valdemāra Street. Arājs's future commanders, Franz Stahlecker and Robert Stieglitz, had with them a Latvian translator, Hans Dressler, whom Arājs had known in high school and in the Latvian army. Because of this friendship, Arājs was introduced to Stahlecker, got on their best side, and gained their trust. Arājs recruited the core of his troops from his student fraternity and Pērkoņkrusts.
On 2 July Arajs learned from Stahlecker during a conference that the Arajs commando had to unleash a pogrom that looked spontaneous. On 4 July 1941, the German leadership turned loose "Security Group Arājs", generally referred to as the Arājs Kommando (arājs means plowman in Latvian) or Special Commando (Sonderkommando) Arājs. On the same day, in the German forces Latvian newspaper Tēvija (Latvian:Fatherland), appeared a recruiting advertisement: "To all patriotic Latvians, Pērkoņkrusts members, Students, Officers, Militiamen, and Citizens, who are ready to actively take part in the cleansing of our country of undesirable elements" should enroll themselves at the office of the Security Group at 19 Valdemara Street. On 4 July Arājs and his henchmen trapped about 20 Jews, who had not been able to take flight before the advancing Germans, in the Riga Synagogue on Gogoļa Street. There they were burnt alive while hand grenades were thrown through the windows. The Arājs commando consisted of 500–1500 volunteers. The unit murdered approximately 26,000 people, first in Latvia and then in Belarus. Arājs was promoted to police major in 1942, and in 1943 to SS-Sturmbannführer.Herberts Cukurs, the former Latvian pilot, was the adjutant to Arājs. Arajs Kommando were notorious for their ill treatment of women. Viktors Arājs raped a Jewish woman, Zelma Shepshelovitz, during the war. Her testimony served a crucial part in the trials of war criminals.
On 21 December 1979, Arājs was found guilty in the State Court of Hamburg (Landgericht Hamburg) of having on 8 December 1941 conducted the Jews of the greater Riga Ghetto to their deaths by the mass shootings in the Rumbula forest. For participation in the murder of 13,000 people, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1988, Arājs died in solitary confinement in a prison in Kassel.
Lumans, Valdis, O, Latvia in World War II, Fordham University Press, New York 2006 ISBN 0-8232-2627-1
Press, Bernard, The murder of the Jews in Latvia: 1941–1945, translation from German by Laimdota Mazzarins. Northwestern University Press, Evanston (IL) 2000, p. 70. ISBN 0-8101-1729-0. (originally published under the title of Judenmord in Lettland 1941–1945, Metropol, Berlin 1992. ISBN 3-926893-13-3.