Biographical Nonfiction Historical Nonfiction

Megalomaniac Masters and Monarchs (4) – He was not right in the head

Continuing with the theme of biographies and literary biographies of megalomaniac monarchs and leaders of nations, here is the fourth and final book: The Bloody White Baron, by James Palmer. It is suitably subtitled, “The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia”. It is indeed an extraordinary story and at times seems so fantastical that it sounds like Fiction. As I have pointed out, the historical figures who I have discussed were connected through history in what seem to me to be unusual ways.

The nobleman in question, Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (there’s a mouthful!) is connected to Empress Cixi of China through a tangled web of political upheavals and wars in which he appeared in the right place and at exactly the right moment to do his thing. This is how it worked:

How the Baron’s story connects with the history of China

The Bloody White BaronThe Extraordinary Story of The Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer (Hardcover; US ed.: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia PA, 2009; British ed.: Faber and Faber Ltd., 2008; 274 pp.)

1908: Dowager Empress Cixi of China dies. Her successor, Puyi, becomes emperor at the age of 2 years and 10 months in Dec. 1908.
1912: Yuan Shikai, a familiar of Empress Cixi, is made President of the new Republic of China. Puyi’s abdication is arranged in February 1912.

1915: Yuan proclaims himself emperor of China, but abdicates due to popular opposition.
1917: The Russian Revolution is in full swing. The warlord Zhang Xun restores Puyi to the throne from July 1 to July 12. In Aug. 1917, China declares war on the Central Powers.

1920: Japan steps into the fray, ambitious to expand its territory while Russia and China are in turmoil, and occupies Mongolia.

1921: While Sun Yatsen emerges as the next leader of China, Von Sternberg invades Mongolia in a last-ditch attempt to restore the Russian monarchy and make Mongolia an independent monarchy. 1921: Von Sternberg conquers Mongolia. But it won’t last long…

A perfectly appropriate epigraph

The book starts with a quotation from the writing of Von Unger-Sternberg himself, and that tells you just about everything you will need to know about him, and his place in history:

“My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is the truth and what is false, what is history and what is myth.”

Baron Ungern-Sternberg, 1921, in The Bloody White Baron

The Baron, or Unger, for short, the subject of this biography, ruled Mongolia for a very brief period, uniting under him fighters and warriors from diverse tribes and political groups, all with the purpose of making Mongolia into an independent monarchy, like pre-revolutionary Russia. He was called the “Last Khan of Mongolia”, and he was briefly worshipped as a god. He might have had aspirations to be on the throne of Mongolia himself.

A good part of the prominence that this man rose to after his death, is based on his own writings about his philosophies and beliefs, and his very strange manner and appearance. He was apparently thin, pale, with light-coloured eyes, reddish-blond hair, quite tall, and scarred on his face, and he was an excellent horseman, fearless, intense, frightening, “pathologically impulsive”, “infected with mysticism”, and passionate about his cause. In other words, a messiah-like figure and natural leader. Well, I’m being cynical, but it takes that kind of over-the-top personality to unite warring, primitive tribesmen into a fighting force.

Besides that, the Baron was a true aficionado of Mongolia and the Transbaikal. He wore Mongolian outfits in stead of the Russian uniform, he thoroughly admired the people, he rode a horse as well as the locals could, he loved the remoteness and emptiness of the land, and he was in some ways more Mongolian than the Mongolians. No wonder they liked him.

Only few photos exist of him, and many edited versions of the same photos exist. The main one is on the cover of the book – there are no other illustrations other than maps of the regions – where the Baron poses in his habitual Mongol outfit, with his most cherished award for military excellence, the Cross of St. George – 4th Class, pinned to his chest. He looks very vampire-like, with those almost-white eyes. Ah no, not vampire-like – like the pictures of the monk, Grigori Rasputin. Same madly intense stare.

The rumours about him having had a “shrivelled brain” or a chunk missing from one of his brain hemispheres, discovered during the autopsy on his body, are also just that…rumours. Check on the Internet and you will find both sensationalist and sensible forum discussions. The most factual one I’ve come across is on Axis History Forum, which provides more details than are in the book.

Military career

He was born on January 10, 1886, in Graz, Austria, and died on September 15, 1921, in Novosibirsk, Russia. Apart from wanting to seize Mongolia and establish it as an independent territory, like Russia of the Tsars before the Bolshevik Revolution, the Baron also had some mixed up ideas about religion and wanted to free the “Bogd Khan”, the “Living Buddha” who had been imprisoned by the Chinese. This made him and his army the enemies of the Red Russians, after the fall of Tsar Nicholas II, as well as the enemies of the revolutionary Chinese, after the removal of the last Emperor, Puyi.

His story contains many half-truths and legends, and so did Mongolia at the time, and to a certain extent still does. The man and his personality suited the country and the fierce, hardy, nomadic people.

Hunters in Mongolia – Photo by Julia Volk on

“His adventures were made all the stranger by their location. Mongolia can sometimes seem half-imaginary, a story-book country that has no business being real. Most countries project their own mental image, however muddle-headed or stereotypical: skyscrapers and hamburgers, berets and the Eiffel Tower, the willow pattern and the Great Wall, bowler hats and big red buses. Mongolia’s popular images are emptiness and exile; Outer Mongolia is a metaphor for as far from anywhere as you can be. When the current [2005 to 2009] president of Mongolia, [Nambaryn] Enkhbayar, came to England to study as a young man, he was detained by a sceptical immigration official who refused to believe that Mongolia was a real country – ‘You’re having me on, son’ – until Enkhbayar produced an atlas to prove his homeland’s reality.”

The Bloody White Baron, p. 2

After the Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917, a Russian by the name of Captain Grigori Michaelovich Semenov (also Mikhaylovich Semyonov) rose to prominence. Semenov was a Japanese-supported leader of the White Russian movement in the Transbaikal region and beyond – remember that Japan had plans for foreign expansion for which they sided with the ousted Emperor Puyi – and from December 1917 to November 1920 he was Lieutenant General and Ataman of Baikal Cossacks (1919). As partly of “Buryat (also spelled Buriat) Mongol” origin, Ataman Semyonov declared a “Great Mongol State” in 1918.

He had designs to unify the Oirat Mongol lands, portions of Xinjiang, Transbaikal, Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, Tannu Uriankhai, Kobdo, Hulunbei’er and Tibet into one Mongolian state. He had the support of the White Siberian Provisional Government which was headquartered in Chita, a very far away, very cold city in Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia, some 900 kilometers (560 miles) east of Irkutsk.

To do this, he became Commander-in-Chief of the Chita military district and Ataman (Cossack military commander) of the Transbaikal Cossack Host, and had as his right-hand man, Von Ungern-Sternberg, who was a military academy drop-out looking for some real fighting. He sure got it.

The Baron when he was in military academy, looking perfectly normal and unscarred. (Source: Wikimedia)

The Baron was actually half German, half Russian, and had been raised in Estonia where his family lived the life of upstanding nobility in what is now Tallinn. As a child, he was cruel, bad-tempered, arrogant and a poor student, but he liked fighting and was good at it. He got the scar on his face in a duel. He believed himself to be a Russian nobleman and had some idea that he would put on the throne of Mongolia the younger brother of the deposed Tsar, “…the amiable but dim Prince Michael. Unknown to Ungern, the man he was championing had been murdered in secret by the Bolsheviks in 1918.” (p. 102). Well, that was a bad idea right from the get-go.

The resulting wars, occupations, battles, skirmishes, sieges, etc., led to the extermination of a whole lot of people in a country which, even then, did not have many people in it to start with. The Baron got a reputation for cruelty and insane disregard for life, including his own. But many of the killings were done in his name, by his soldiers and people associated with him, even after his arrest. Did he personally kill and torture people? The question was raised at his trial – but not answered in full.

As it’s made clear in the book, the huge numbers of deaths, the mistreatment, and the wholesale extermination for which Unger’s forces were responsible, were foreshadows of things to come.

After, his death, killings in reprisal were the order of the day;

“Now the killing began in earnest. Any old grievance could be used as an excuse for political murder, including having worked with Ungern. Sundui, who had captured Ungern, was executed, despite his protests that he had intended to hand over to the Baron. Thousands upon thousands were killed. The Buriats, particularly hated by the Russians for having fled from the collective paradise of the Soviet Union, were targeted with a special intensity, as were the [Buddhist] monks, sixteen and a half thousand who were shot in one year, and tens of thousands more forcibly laicised.”

The Bloody White Baron, p. 237

A strange mixture of beliefs

Ungern based his actions and decisions on a truly mixed up and largely made up personal beliefs. To some he gave the impression of being a Buddhist – which explained his support for and rescue of the imprisoned Buddhist leader, the Bogd Khan.

The Bogd Khan, 8th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, ruler (khan) of the Bogd Khaganate of Mongolia from 1911 to 1924, following the country’s independence from the Qing dynasty of China. He was the was the third most important person in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy as the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, below only the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, and therefore also known as the “Bogdo Lama”.

To others, he was a monarchist, defending the Russian Orthodox faith – which explained his aim of getting Russian Prince Michael on the throne of Mongolia. And to others, he was a believer in primitive animism and shamanism, thinking of himself as the reborn warrior king, Genghis Khan, and draping himself with Mongol talismans. Either way, he did not have a leg to stand on – the whole thing was hokum:

“All this said, his knowledge of both Christianity and Buddhism was rudimentary. He had never formally abandoned his family’s Lutheran faith, but his thinking was clearly far more Orthodox, drawing upon traditions of hierarchy, stability and monarchy that were deeply rooted in Russian religion. […] He certainly doesn’t seem to have attained any deep understanding of Buddhism. It was the surface trappings that appealed to him: ritual, order, ceremony. Most of all he valued its purity, the preservation of the old and correct order of things.”

The Mad White Baron, pp. 186 – 187

Yet this decidedly peculiar person proved, through sheer force of personality and his personal bravery, that he could unite and lead disparate peoples (at least for a little while), and in the bigger game that was being played by nations fighting over dominance in the Transbaikal region, he achieved (briefly) what he had set out to do and what he had been ordered to do.

The trial

After his troops were defeated, and most of his officers surrendered and betrayed him, he was captured and paraded like a fairground attraction at numerous stops along the long train journey from his base at Daouria, to Novonikolaevsk in Siberia (now Novosibirsk), where he was to stand trial. The accusations included treason by plotting with the Japanese, attempting to overthrow the Russian government, and perpetuating terror. Apparently, Lenin, in Moscow, was pleased with the news that he had been caught. The trial on September 15, 1921 lasted only five hours and twenty minutes. He made brief, laconic statements confirming some of the charges against him, and denying or correcting others. He got the death sentence. The judge said to him: “Citizen Ungern, you may have the last word.” He replied: “I have nothing to say.”

With those words, the legend of the “Bloody White Baron” was born. To this day, people remember him, some as a saint, some as a god, or a hero, and mystery continues to surround him, including about his place of burial (unknown) and the treasure and gold he supposedly hid somewhere on the Mongolian steppes (hardly likely).

Sorting fact from fiction

What does the author make of him? Palmer paints about as complete a picture as he could with the amount of available information, but large sections of the book are about the other role players, Semenov, Yuan Shikai, etc., not about the Baron himself. The letters and documents written by the Baron himself are about the campaigns and about his philosophy behind them, and are not personal.

A letter in Russian in Unger’s hand, written to Semenov.

The Baron was married to a woman called Elena Pavlovna (m. 1919; div. 1920), and they had a child, but his marriage is only a brief mention in the book. He never lived with them but was always seen alone, like a monk. What became of them and where their descendants – if any – are now, who knows. In any case, he had completely disassociated himself from his relatives in Tallinn, perhaps knowing he would not come out of his adventures unscathed or with his reputation intact.

Palmer writes that the Baron was hailed as a hero by the Mongol people who believed he would free their country from oppression by other nations – the Chinese, the Russians, even the Japanese. As such, he was not an entirely bad man. He was a soldier, a product of his upbringing and his time. In the Epilogue, Palmer points out that by 2009, nothing much had changed for the people of Mongolia and things were pretty much back to the way it had been before the Baron stepped in the first quarter of the 20th century.

The story practically wrote itself – it really is stranger than fiction. But to keep it factual, the author does provide extensive notes and source references, a bibliography with works in English, German, and Russian, an index, as well as the handy maps of the region, showing the borders as they were at the time. As mentioned, there are no illustrations, but then, there are so few images of the Baron himself.

The days of towering legends

In those days, with the world in turmoil and revolutions springing up just about everywhere, there was still the chance of a nobody from nowhere becoming someone powerful, a legend, a god. A similar story is that of Josiah Harlan, a self-educated Quaker from Pennsylvania, who was an adventurer, schemer, and a doctor who practiced with no qualifications, who served various Maharajahs and Khans in India and Afghanistan.

Harlan had aspirations to become a king, and did indeed become the legitimate Prince of Ghor, a province of Afghanistan, in the mid 1800s. Harlan survived his adventures in Afghanistan but died on the streets of San Francisco as a poor, ordinary, unknown person. Ben Macintyre wrote a very interesting and amusing biography of him called Josiah the Great – the Man Who Would be King; amusing, because Harlan left rather grandly worded, vainglorious records of his adventures – he was like the Great Wizard from The Wizard of Oz – an affable fraud.

Josiah the Great – The true story of the Man who would be King, by Ben Macintyre (HarperCollins Publisher; July 1, 2011; Paperback; 350 pages)

Nowadays, anyone so fake and so mentally unbalanced as both Unger and Harlan would be exposed in the media and removed from their positions of power. The days of such megalomanic individuals are long gone (let’s not mention certain current world leaders…) All that remains is for their reputations to be confirmed or revised as time passes. Teasing fact from fiction and legends, in the Bloody White Baron Palmer confirms that Unger was indeed bloody-minded, and had blood on his hands, was a White Russian, and an actual Baron – and that this title which his subjects bestowed on him suited him very well indeed.

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