Baron Ungern-Sternberg has held a fascination for me since encountering him in Mark Samuels’ story “A Call to Greatness”, so I picked up a biography of him.
Review: The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, James Palmer, 2008.
In 1921, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, convinced by oracles that he had 130 days to live, issued, as the “Incarnated God of War, Khan of grateful Mongolia”, his notorious General Order 15. (Numbered “15” for superstitious reasons. It was actually the first order issued by the paperwork-averse man born Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.)
It stated, among other things:
‘Truth and mercy’ are no longer admissible. Henceforth there can only be ‘truth and merciless hardness.’ The evil which has fallen upon the land, with the object of destroying the divine principle in the human soul, must be extirpated root and branch. Fury against the heads of the revolution, its devoted followers, must know no boundaries.
Chilling words, anathema to civilized values. Yet, being of a dark and pessimistic turn of mind, I wonder if we will, under some circumstance in the not-so-distant future, have to ponder its application.
And General Order No. 15 leaves no doubt as to what that “merciless hardness” consisted of for him:
Commissars, Communists, and Jews, together with their families, must be exterminated. Their property must be confiscated.
And there, for me, lies the fascination with the Baron – exponent of dark truths of civilizational survival but for a situation whose exigencies did not clearly make mercy inadmissible.
The Baron was a man of few admirable qualities.
Born in Austria in 1885, the Ungern-Sternberg spent his early life on a family estate in what is now Estonia but then part of the Russian Empire.
He has been called the sort of bully other bullies were afraid of. Palmer drops the bully description but notes his classmates and instructors were terrorized by him. Tall, athletic, unwilling to obey rules and do much studying despite his intelligence, he was a violent, impulsive child. His voice, coming through the record, is “strident, sarcastic, vicious” says Palmer.
He was kicked out of two military academies.
The Russo-Japanese War saved him though he arrived at the front after Russia’s defeat. But he buckled down, learned military routine and discipline – this was war, after all, not school. And he got his first brush with the East and was impressed by the Japanese.
The 1905 Revolution hardened Ungern-Sternberg even more. His family home in Estonia was burned down by revolutionaries.
The Baron did attend a third military academy, the prestigious Paul I Military Academy, and he actually managed to graduate though as a mediocre student.
It was about this time he developed his interest in the occult, mysticism and Buddhism. The early 20th Century was steeped in such things and Russia especially so. One of the many stories about him is that he was clairvoyant and could read minds.
After graduation, Ungern-Sternberg joined a Cossack regiment in the Transbaikal in 1911. It is odd that, for a man with notions of restoring the Russian Empire, he spent most of his adult life on its fringes. The Cossacks were the romanticized, “decently acceptable version of the Mongols” (they were Slavic in heritage, not Asian). Here Ungern developed his love of the cavalry which was to serve him well in a guerrilla context but, ultimately, was woefully inadequate for his coming battle with the Red forces.
Predictably, the Baron didn’t last long among the Cossacks. The record shows numerous accounts of duels and an assault on a local merchant. As Palmer notes, there were probably other assaults on servants and locals deemed, by the aristocratic culture of the Russian Army, not worth mentioning.
In 1913, the Baron was effectively kicked out of the army and went to Mongolia.
It is with the Mongolian material that Palmer’s book is particularly interesting since he has traveled to the country and written about it extensively and comes to the Baron’s story in that context. Palmer manages to convey the bizarre nature of Mongolian Buddhism, definitely not the pacific faith that the Western mind holds Buddhism to be. It is an apocalyptic faith, a thin veneer over native shamanism, that would come to be at the center of Ungern-Sternberg’s syncretic “Yellow Faith”.
Mongolia had only become independent in 1911 when Imperial China collapsed and, throughout Ungern-Sternberg’s story, it was the scene of diplomatic intrigue and violence as the natives contended with Japanese, Chinese, and Russian efforts to control the country. Central to these was the obese, blind, frequently drunk, syphilitic Bogd Khan, head of Mongolian Buddhism. His penchant for exotic Western imports and for despoiling young monks did not blunt a keen mind or frequent resorts to assassination. It was the Bogd Khan who would eventually proclaim the Baron the “God of War”.
In the Great War that was to destroy the Russian Empire, the Baron’s “brutality, impulsiveness, coarseness”, became “his greatest assets”. He was one of the small percentage of Russian troops who escaped the German trap at Tannenberg. He had found his place, became “an exemplar” to other officers and soldiers according to official reports, gained the respect of his men, earned several medals including the Cross of St. George, fourth class (which he wore to the end of his days).
“Life”, he declared, “is the result of war, and society is the instrument of war. … To refuse war means to refuse an epic life.”
In 1914 through 1916, the Baron served in the Carpathians and East Prussia, incurred numerous wounds and was promoted.
But the old Baron’s flaws were still there. One of many stories about this time (and there are very many about the Baron) is that he walked into a café and began firing a gun into the ceiling. Another story (a later Soviet accusation and, like so many stories, unproven) is that he beat a lower-ranking officer. He was put in military prison for two months.
Released in 1917, the Baron was deployed to the Caucasus. It was there he met the future White Cossack Grigori Semenov. Semenov, like Ungern-Sternberg, had also spent time in Mongolia and went on to have a colorful career of his own that included time in the U.S. and charges of “robbery, bigamy, murder, torture, rape and pillage” followed him to his hanging by the Soviets in 1946.
It was during this period, they witnessed one of the 20th century’s forgotten bits of genocide, the killing of Christian Assyrians by the Turks. The event, says Palmer, put in the minds of Semenov and Ungern-Sternberg the idea of recruiting native groups to their cause. While they were unable to save the Assyrians, the idea was more successful in the eastern theater of the Russian Civil War.
By the beginning of 1918, Ungern was in Siberia with the Whites, he seems to have almost single-handedly put down a mutiny of two companies. His sheer aura of brutality and violence was scary even to battle-hardened troops.
All this takes us up to page 95 of Palmer’s account with about 150 more pages detailing the Baron in the Russian Civil War and driving Chinese forces out of Mongolia.
We hear of his weird mysticism and religious world view that combined a Buddhist apocalyptic legend of the King of the World emerging from Shambala to conquer the world, apocalyptic visions from the Christian Books of Daniel and Revelation, and Theosophy. The Yellow Faith would rejuvenate the decadence of Russia with Eastern values. Modernity, represented by communism and the Jews – a whorish religion going back to Babylon, would be expelled. Prince Michael would be placed on the throne. (Michael, Czar Nicholas’ son, had been missing for three years and was already dead. Whether the Baron really believed he was still alive, we don’t know.)
The Baron didn’t care about a man’s faith (except, of course, Jews) or race. It was atheists and communists he hated. One of his few bits of liberality was allowing his men the free opportunity to follow the rites and practices of their faith.
Palmer charts, as much as historical documentation allows, the Baron’s move into Mongolia as a base to continue the struggle after the 1920 Soviet offensive that swept away most of the White forces. There he became a de facto dictator running a regime that had several torture chambers and inventive punishments (a surprising number involving trees), seemingly Ungern-Sternberg’s attempt to recreate some of the hellish punishments depicted in Mongolian Buddhist art.
Few good things can be said about the Baron in this period. Unlike Semenov and most of the other White leaders, he didn’t skim off foreign aid to enrich himself. The Baron led an ascetic life in simple quarters in the Mongolia capitol of Urga. He was a provocative and interesting conversationalist. Several contemporaries reported talking to him though Palmer has his doubts about the veracity of the most famous, Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski and his account mentioning the Baron, Beasts, Men, and Gods.
Unlike his counterintelligence officer, Colonel Sipailov, he was not a sexual sadist. (Indeed, Palmer says there are no intimations that the Baron ever had sex with anybody in his life – even though he briefly married a “Chinese princess”.) But Baron turned a blind eye to Sipailov’s excesses though he did whip him for drunkenness. A combination of ascetic life, brutality, shared danger, and mysticism, bound – for a while – Ungern-Sternberg’s multi-ethnic troops to him. The Baron was also a more brutal disciplinarian to Whites joining his army, if he had no prior acquaintance with them, than Asian troops. There are several stories where the Baron seems to have uncannily, with just a glance, spotted Red agents in the White refugees who showed up in Mongolia. (Of course, there are also stories where no proof of the accused’s guilt exists.)
But, in 1921, the Reds started to close in. Ungern-Sternberg took his men on a foolish foray into Russia. They were turned back, and, trying to flee to Tibet, the Baron was captured after his men melted away, his brutality and godly charisma eventually no longer enough to keep them around.
After a five-hour trial, the Soviets shot him on September 15, 1921.
Appropriately for a man still remembered in rock songs, art, video games, and novels, stories about his death or even escape started early. One had bullets ricocheting off his Cross of St. George and back at his executioners.
Even today, Palmer says, you can still meet Mongolians who literally regard the White Baron as a god.
You can find plenty of material on the Baron online, but the strength of this book is not in recounting the legends, fact based and purely fictional, about the Baron but the context of his time and particularly the Mongolian background. Palmer provides some maps of the Baron’s White campaigns. However, I didn’t appreciate his tendency to not tag many events with specific dates.
Palmer seems to tacitly and conventionally accept that Ungern-Sternberg’s association of Jews with Bolshevism was irrational.
The matter is more complicated. Certainly, claiming Judaism was a “whorish religion” born in Babylon is not an objective statement. Also, Russians did promote that classic book of anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Against that, though, must be cited a long Jewish connection with communism starting with Marx’s own Jewish background. During the days of the Red Terror, Jews were very much disproportionately represented among the NKVD’s executioners.
Online Resources about the White Baron
If you want to dip your toes into the bizarre story of the White Baron, there is the inevitable Wikipedia page.
Naturally, he got his own entry in the “Badass of the Week” series though, while it recommends reading Palmer’s book, it repeats some stories he dismisses as false.
Mad Monarchist gives him a two part series and also has an article on the Bogd Khan.
An article from New Dawn magazine asks if the Baron was a mystic or madman.
Soviet scholar Simon Sebag Montefiore’s review of Palmer’s book is generally favorable but notes that, while Palmer criticizes Ossendowski’s book, he still uses it “prolifically” as a source.
A short video about the Baron is part of the Great War YouTube series.
More reviews of general non-fiction are indexed here.