25. – 584.) The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer – While in Dusseldorf a few weeks ago I bought this book in the city’s largest bookstore. I had never heard of Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, an Estonian Baron of German descent, who grew up at the end of the 19th Century during the Russian Empire’s decline.At best mentally unstable Ungern was bound for a short dissolute life when war, starting with the Russo-Japanese war, provided opportunities for him to indulge his violent nature. Brave, to the point of suicidal, he thrived during WW I.
Vicious, swift to take offence at any perceived slight, racist, and committed to a feudal society he read extensively and was a talented linguist learning languages easily and quickly. Personally ascetic Ungern was indifferent to sex. I was reminded of another ascetic, brutal German dictator who was essentially asexual – Hitler.
Fascinated by Mongolia he spent time stationed in a land barely touched by modern civilization at the start of the 20th Century. Russia, China and Japan all sought to at least be the dominant influence in Mongolia.
When Russia’s revolutions ended with the Reds in charge he became an officer in the White armies of Siberia. Only barely tolerating the authority of the White army leaders he developed his own force.
Ungern’s concept of discipline was extreme. He used flogging, really flaying, beatings, leaving men outside in freezing temperatures and requiring others to sit atop a tree during the night. These sadistic treatments were administered almost at whim.
While never clear on his actual beliefs Ungern was influenced by the mystical traditions of the Orthodox Church and Mongolian Buddhism. I had not known there was a close connection between Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism. Neither favoured the pacifist Buddhism of the 21st Century Western World. They were militaristic, often blood thirsty, Buddhists. Within their faith were living gods. The best known at this time being the Dalai Lama.
Ungern, already a semi-mythic figure, as he begins his successful quest to conqueror Mongolia is called by many the “God of War”. (In his usual balanced approach Palmer makes clear the phrase may have been misinterpreted but Ungern was certainly an exalted figure.)
A dedicated anti-Semite, Ungern, initiated and encouraged the massacre of the Jews of Urga when he took the city. In a chilling foretaste of the future he rode under banners that included swastikas and killed all Jews so that “neither men, nor women, nor their seed should remain”.
Ungern’s reign was short lived. His cruelty, lack of organization and impulsiveness doomed him.
Ungern was an amazing character. Palmer has written an excellent biography. He effectively evokes Ungern and explains the circumstances that allowed this adventurer to take Mongolia. (May 17/11)