In the last years of the 19th century and the first 20 or so years of the 20th century, Asia and Eastern Europe were hotbeds of revolution, insurrection, and social upheaval. Apart from the insanity and massive death toll of the Great War of 1914 to 1918, which involved most nations in Europe, in those years many countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas were up in arms for other reasons. Three nations were particularly tangled up politically and economically at this point in the new century: China, Russia (which became the Soviet Union) and the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey). All three were changing from a monarchical system to some form of democratic or citizen-led government.

So what? you ask. That’s just historical fact. Sure. But at the time these countries were governed by absolute leaders – kings, empresses, sultans, tsars, and so on – who were particularly “eccentric”, to use a euphemism, and who have been written about at length. Biographies about them inevitably make for very juicy reading, during which the reader is hypnotized by the horror but unable to put the book down.

Really mad, bad and dangerous to know

And à propos of what am I going on about this? The answer is my fascination with four unquestionably important, but definitely controversial historical figures, who are all connected to each other. They are:

  • Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte of France and his wife Empress Joséphine;
  • Chinese Qing Dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi and her heir, the Emperor  P’u-yi;
  • Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I and his consorts and successors; and
  • Baron Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, military leader of the Bogd Khanate of Mongolia.

I’ve recently finished reading historical biographies that deal with their personal lives and their reigns which cover the period of the mid to late 18th century to the first quarter of the 20th century. And all I can say after having waded through all of them, is that these people were not quite right in their heads, one way or another. The books are:

Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I and his successors:

Lords of the Golden Horn, by Noel Barber

Qing Dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi:

The Last Empress, by Anchee Min

Qing Dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi and her heir, Emperor  P’u-yi:

The Empty Throne, by Tony Scotland

Baron Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, military leader of the Bogd Khanate of Mongolia:

The Bloody White Baron, by James Palmer

A particularly bloody period in history

But before I introduce this collection of Biographical Nonfiction, here follows a bit of history, to provide some context and show how these figures were connected.


I am no historian, and much of what I have read about this period surprised me. (Do not expect a detailed and accurate historical analysis in this write-up.)

It seems to me that these masters of empires, leaders of men, and monarchs over millions, could pretty much do whatever they wanted with the powers (often godly powers) vested in them, until some inquisitive and righteous foreigner stuck their nose in and saw fit to report on what they observed locally.

Usually, such tales of horror from faraway places were met with either with panting sensationalism or blank disbelief. And there usually wasn’t much of a fuss made about thousands of citizens getting annihilated to satisfy whatever urges for power and wealth their kings, queens, emperors, sultans or reincarnated khans had. You read right, reincarnated khans – there were those as well. Governments mainly declared war on each other if one had invaded the other and took over their territory.

Military power combined with modern weapons, new global telegraph communication systems, and the fairly typical xenophobia of leaders in this era, caused perfect storms of war and subjugation around the world. It was all about territory, territory, territory. The poor suffering villagers and peasants be damned. And any minorities be doubly damned.

Megalomaniac leaders portrayed in books

The expression goes that everything in the world are separated by only six degrees. And so are these individuals, who are actually cross-referenced in the discrete biographies and history books that I read about them. It is fascinating to see how some names pop up as footnotes in one book, only to become main players in another one. They are connected not only because they all seem to have repeated historical events through their decisions, but also because they all had blood on their hands.

What they decided and did resulted in entire peoples being killed off. We’re talking millions here – whole populations. But as I say, in those days, one more battle with mountains of corpses was nothing to get worked up about. The people suffered. The rulers ruled and got wealthier and made more awful decisions which led to more dead people. I could only assume that all of them, one way or another, were not right in their heads and suffered from megalomania, since they had an obsession with the exercise of power, especially in the domination of others, and delusions about their own power or importance. In their cases, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Separated only by six degrees

This is how they are linked: Starting with my favourite emperor, Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte of France. He married Joséphine Beauharnais, who became Empress Joséphine. Joséphine was born Rose, or Marie-Rose, Tascher de la Pagerie, in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique. Her cousin-in-law, and close childhood friend through her marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais, her first husband, was Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry.

Aimée du Buc de Rivéry, blonde and blue-eyed, born 4 December 1768, at Le Robert, Martinique. Disappeared August 1788 at sea. Official status: missing. Or: married to Sultan Abdul Hamid I.

In about mid-1788, Aimée de Rivéry was travelling by ship from France back to her home in Martinique when the ship was attacked by Algerian corsairs (pirates), and she was captured. According to some accounts, though this is disputed as purely being a legend, she was given by the Bey of Algiers as a present to Sultan Abdul Hamid I of the Ottoman Empire, now called Turkey, and became the Nakşidil Sultan, the sultan’s wife. If the stories are true, she was one of the foremost manipulators and influencers of Sultan Abdul Hamid I, and was probably the one person in the huge harems of the Ottoman sultans who started the downfall of the dynasty. So far, so good, eh?

One bad sultan after another

Born in 1725, Abdul Hamid I was, as per tradition, imprisoned in isolation until he was put on the throne in 1774. Like all males in the line of descent, he had been locked up in order to prevent any attempts by him at usurping the throne. By reputation, he was a man of limited ambition and knowledge of the world. Aimée, a.k.a. “Naksh”, meaning “The Beautiful One”, his concubine and some say wife, was very French, smart and educated for a woman of that time. Abdul Hamid I came under her influence, and consequently made efforts to modernize his country by introducing French innovations.

But it was during his reign that the Empire started losing large chunks of its territories to Russia. Russia repeatedly exploited its position as protector of Eastern European Christians, to interfere in the Ottoman Empire in order to gain territories.

The last four tsars of Russia had definite ambitions for expansion – the country grew until its borders stretched from Siberia in the North at the Bering Sea, to the Sea of Okhotsk in the East, the Black Sea in the West and Caspian Sea in the South. (Map: Britannica)

As a result, the Ottomans declared war against Russia in 1787. At first, the Ottomans held their own in the conflict, but on 6 December 1788, Ochakov fell to Russia, and all of its inhabitants were massacred. It is said that this tragic defeat broke Abdul Hamid’s spirit, and he died four months later in 1789. He was eventually succeeded by Selim III, his nephew, who also had an admiration for all things French, particularly Aimée du Buc de Rivéry.

Abdul Hamid I’s successor, Selim III, his nephew, sustained the Empire’s connection with France. Selim III, had, for most of his life, been positively disposed towards the French. Since the time that he had been a young prince, secluded (locked away) in the palace, Selim had apparently developed a personal taste for things European. His greatest interest was in European military institutions and practices. Even before he became sultan, he had secretly written to the French court of Louis XVI requesting advice on how to build up the Ottoman armed forces to the level of those in Europe.

This early desire for French-style military reform would come to fruition after he became sultan, but the ‘…period of reform was interrupted, however, when Selim found himself forced to take sides in the European conflict when General Napoléon Bonaparte’s forces invaded Egypt and Syria. As a result, Selim would declare war on France on September 11, 1799. ‘

Franco-Turkish Relationship during First Empire
Part 1: 1799 – 1805, The Napoleon Series Archive, The Waterloo Association

Imperialist expansion

And so the connection between Napoléon and the Ottoman sultans continues. But Russian interference in the affairs of the Empire continued after the death of Selim III, reaching a critical stage during the reign of Mahmud (Mahmoud) II, the son of Abdul Hamid I and and the Nakşidil Sultan, Aimée. The Ottoman Empire suffered drastic shrinkage during his reign. The Russians gained complete control of several Ottoman provinces, and large stretches of the right bank of the Danube, and they might have advanced much deeper into Ottoman territory had not Napoléon invaded Russia in 1812. By the 1840s, the Ottoman Empire was known as the “Sick Man of Europe“, and its eventual dissolution appeared inevitable. It was just a matter of Britain, France, Russia and Germany partitioning the Empire – and deciding which country gets the “single costly stone”, Constantinople, in the diamond ring which was the Ottoman Empire.

Cartoons were equally offensive to everyone in those days…

Title of cartoon: “TURKEY: ANOTHER SICK MAN.” An 1898 cartoon by Sir John Tenniel on the ‘sick man of Europe’ consoling the ‘sick man of Asia.’

Enter the Empress

At the same time as Russia was expanding and the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, the Chinese Qing Empire was breaking up. And that’s where where Empress Cixi comes in. After her death, and the removal of her successor, the young  P’u-yi, the Xuantong Emperor, China fell into a period of anarchy, during which time, Russia, itself in a battle between Reds (Bolsheviks) and Whites (anti-revolutionaries), tried to take over Mongolia, and succeeded. Japan, with its imperialist ambitions, targeted the Eastern region of Manchuria (formerly Manchukuo), and replaced Russian influence in the southern half of Inner Manchuria as a result of the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905.

Xenophobia of all kinds in this cartoon: Around the table, in the process of partitioning China (represented by a senior official of the Qing court, judging by the peacock feather), are: Queen Victoria of Great Britain, someone from the German Reich, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, “Marianne”, the symbol of liberty in France, and a Japanese noble. (Source: Cartoon entitled “En Chine. Le gateau des Rois et des Empereurs,” by H. Meyer, in Le Petit Journal, supplement, January 16, 1898. Source: Dividing up the [Chinese] Melon, guafen 瓜分: The Fate of a Transcultural Metaphor in the Formation of National Myth, by Rudolf G. Wagner, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg)

Between the Chinese and the Russians – The Bloody White Baron

And now comes the strange part: Into this tumult stepped a German-Russian Estonian with a mad lust for power and visions of a restored monarchy in Mongolia, Baron Ungern von Sternberg. And, for a short while, he was the only leader of Mongolia, fighting against both Russians and Chinese.

Voilá! There you have the connections between these historical figures, from Emperor Napoléon to the Bloody White Baron.

Who on earth wants Mongolia?

As far as I can make out, during this period, 1898 to about 1921, politics in Europe and Asia was all about gaining territories and enforcing subjugation. These handy maps, below, from Omniatlas, show who declared war on who, and when, from the Ottoman Empire in the west, to Japan in the East, with China, Russia and all the “stans”, “khals” and “khans” in between.

Mongolia was a pivotal territory for the Russians and Chinese. Looking at the maps, I wondered again, why in heaven’s name, you would want to conquer Mongolia, the buffer between Russia and China? It’s a huge area, but it’s landlocked, arid, and inhospitable. The south is the Gobi Desert and the north is cold and mountainous. And the country has harsh climatic conditions, such as the zud, a natural disaster which occurs only in Mongolia, in which large proportions of the country’s livestock die from starvation or freezing temperatures, or both, resulting in economic upheaval for the largely pastoral population. Wow. And this land is what Von Sternberg, who was smitten with the legends about Genghis Khan, wanted to make into an independent monarchy. Oh well, putting your money on any monarchy at that time was a losing bet.

They thought they were gods, or just…God

How did this lot, with their unmitigated lust for power and god-like status (yes, even Ungern Von Sternberg) end up? Gone to dust, like all humans, with their legacies and reputations gone to dust as well. Some, like Empress Cixi, were vilified for decades after their deaths. Others were vilified, then reinstated as heroes, like Admiral Kolchak mentioned in the 1918 map (no. 5), above. Some were misrepresented as power-mad sadists and murderers. But some, according to biographers, really were insane, like Von Sternberg (apparently a post-mortem showed he had a part of his brain missing), while others were just weak and not very intelligent, like Abdul Hamid I and his successors, and the last emperor of China, P’u-yi.

How the authors interpret history

With changing opinions and assessments, how did the authors of these biographies and histories view their subjects? Did they buy into the idea that these monarchs were gods? Or did they only write about the salacious, gruesome aspects?

To rephrase a quote by Emilio Urdapilleta, a reader who commented on my post about the President of Paraguay, while the reputations of these historical figures are romanticized or demonized according to social and political trends,

“…the voices of all those dead citizens, “…pretty much like the voices of Ireland, Poland or Armenia, remain drowned in blood and deafened by noisy and powerful propaganda.

Emilio Urdapilleta

All these leaders had genocidal campaigns carried out in their names, to get rid of Christians, Armenians, Jews, Muslims, White Russians, Mongolians, Tibetans, etc. – whichever group was an enemy or simply hated at the time. Some campaigns were deemed genocides and have been recorded in history books. In other campaigns and battles, the dead were just dumped in rivers or in piles on the steppes, and were forgotten. This is definitely “history that deserves to be remembered”, to quote The History Guy on YouTube, so that they will never be repeated.

Next post: The Lords of the Golden Horn – How to ruin an empire through harems, eunuchs and fratricide.

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