Book Review: The Bloody White Baron
The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia by James Palmer
The 20th Century was remarkable for its voluminous bloodshed and civilizational upheaval yet for inhuman cruelty and sheer weirdness, Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian Ungern von Sternberg manages to stand out in a historical field crowded with dictators, terrorists, guerillas, revolutionaries, fascists and warlords of the worst description. Biographer James Palmer has brought to life in The Bloody White Baron an enigmatic, elusive, monster of the Russian Civil War who is more easily compared to great villains of fiction than real life war criminals. Palmer’s bloodthirsty Mad Baron comes across like a militaristic version of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or perhaps more like Hannibal Lecter with a Mongol Horde.
Ill-tempered, impulsively violent, insubordinate and socially isolated even among fellow aristocratic officers, Baron Ungern was, as Palmer admits, without much wit or charm, a complete failure in Tsarist society and the Imperial Army until the coming of the Great War. As with many “warlord personalities“, the chaos and ruin of the battlefield was the Baron’s natural element and for the first time in his life, he experienced great success, his maniacal bravery under fire winning Ungern promotions and the highly coveted St. George’s Cross. This is an eerie parallel with the life of Adolf Hitler, and numerous times in the text, Palmer alludes to similarities between the Baron’s apocalyptic views on Communists and Jews, and that of Baltic-German refugees like Alfred Rosenberg and Max Scheubner-Richter who contributed eliminationist anti-semitism and theories about “Jewish- Bolshevism” to Nazi ideology.
A fanatical monarchist and philo-Buddhist fascinated with far-off Mongolia and Tibet, the Baron regarded the Russian Revolution as the greatest of calamities and joined the Whites under the leadership of the gangster-like Ataman Semenov to rape, loot, torture and murder with a hodgepodge Cossack horde across the Transbaikal region of Siberia. The Baron’s fiefdom under Semenov was a macabre, bone-littered, execution ground ruled by reactionary mysticism and ghoulish exercises in medieval torture visited upon the Baron’s own soldiers scarcely less often than on hapless peasants or captive Reds.
Dismayed by Semenov’s corruption and dependence on the Japanese and the collapsing fortunes of Russia’s White armies, Palmer recounts how the Baron fled with a ragtag band of followers to Chinese occupied Mongolia, where, in a series of bizarre circumstances, the Baron managed to destroy a sizable Chinese army (charging on horseback straight into enemy machine gun fire and emerging unscathed), seized the fortified capital, restored the “living Buddha” the Bogd Khan to the throne and become celebrated the eyes of the Mongolians, variously as the reincarnation of Ghengis Khan and/or the prophesied coming of the “God of War”. Naturally, to further his dream of building a pan-Asian Buddhist Empire, Baron Ungern unleashed a nightmarish reign of terror in Mongolia, taking especial and personal delight in the executions of Jews and captured commissars.
Ungern’s final foray in battle, before his capture, trial and execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks, is like something out of the Dark Ages:
With this final defeat, Ungern shed any trace of civilization. He rode silently with bowed head in front of the column. he had lost his hat and most of his clothes. On his naked chest numerous Mongolian talismans and charms hung on a bright yellow cord. He looked like a prehistoric ape-man. People were afraid to look at him.
Despite the best efforts of the Bolshevik prosecutor to focus upon political motives, even the Soviet revolutionary tribunal that condemned him to death on Lenin’s orders, considered the Baron to be a dangerous madman.
James Palmer has shed a great deal of light on one of the darkest corners of the Russian Civil War, Baron Ungern von Sternberg, a subject that largely eluded prominent historians like W. Bruce Lincoln, Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes. The Bloody White Baron is a fascinating read and a window into the life of the 20th century’s strangest warlord.
July 29th, 2009 at 5:10 am
The greatest of all possible public health disasters: the dangerous nut who finds his moment.
July 29th, 2009 at 5:17 am
Agreed! Well said! Serial killers in power are bad news.
July 30th, 2009 at 8:29 pm
Interesting. And might it be useful for perspective to note that those who gave him what he had certainly coming proved to be history’s greatest mass-murderers?
Unless that was Mao. There’s that.
Meanwhile, I’m curious as to how the Mad Baron stacks up against King Leopold II of Belgium on the bloody horror scale.
July 30th, 2009 at 9:33 pm
The Baron’s enemies operated on a different mental scale of murder than he did and had far better organizational skills. The Bolsheviks did democide as bureaucratic state policy while Ungern had a lot more in common with, say, Vlad the Impaler or Papa Doc Duvalier. What he lacked in death-dealing quantity the Baron made up for in improvisational creativity and that personal touch that keeps some chain smoking intellectual from remarking about "the banality of evil".
Leopold King of the Belgians had a much better head for business than Ungern whose understanding of economics was fairly muddled, but Ungern would have heartily approved of the lopping off of hands in the Congo Free State.
July 30th, 2009 at 9:58 pm
In terms of Dungeons and Dragons typology, Ungern was chaotic evil, but the Bolsheviks were lawful evil. The chaotic guys cannot "do size" anything like the organized bad guys.
July 31st, 2009 at 8:16 pm
You should check out the Baron’s comic book incarnation by in Hugo Pratt’s "Corto Maltese in Siberia".
August 1st, 2009 at 8:28 am
Strangely enough I first encountered him back in my gaming days. He appears in a game called Iron Storm which was based on a counterfactual history of World War I in which Ungern-Sternberg actually establishes an empire stretching from the boundaries of the old Iron Curtain across Asia. It was a little weird to discover that the character wasn’t fantasy.
Palmer has written an highly readable and well-researched book on a fascinating and horrifying character. I hope he pursues another obscure corner in history for his next book.
August 1st, 2009 at 9:04 pm
[…] any choice quotes to share with readers yet, but in the meantime you can enjoy ZenPundit’s review of a book on the Russian Civil War general Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian Ungern von Sternberg, who […]
August 8th, 2009 at 7:44 am
It’s a sad testament that the human animal appears to be devolving rather than evolving.
In the last 30yrs we have seen monsters that utterly eclipse the bloody white baron and his like in every respect. (Especially the insanity area.)
For example the IMF and the World bank implementing Milton Friedman’s economic theories have shed more innocent blood than every dictator and madman in history added together. Yet friedman, was not executed for crimes against humanity, I guess being pathological has it’s advantages, no guilt for the hundreds of millions you murder.
August 9th, 2009 at 8:23 am
Thx ! I remember I pestered you last yr in re a review.
August 10th, 2009 at 3:48 am
You are welcome!
Well, I agree with you that the IMF has had a deleterious effect in a lot of places and the staff, which is from many countries, are often callous and politically obtuse but I’m not sure its harsh austerity programs could be described as "Friedmanite".