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The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia

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by James Palmer, Basic Books, 2009, $18.99 (paperback).

People have long had a perverse fascination with leaders who breach the bounds of sanity in the pursuit of power, and the subject of James Palmer’s new book, The Bloody White Baron, is a prime candidate to join the pantheon of sociopaths. If his name is not as familiar, or as notorious, as, say, Hitler, Stalin or Mao, it is only because his reign of terror was mercifully brief and occurred in one of earth’s most remote regions. Yet to this day, in parts of Outer Mongolia, Baron Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg is regarded as a god.

A noted travel writer and student of Asian cultures and religions, Palmer first heard the legend of the Bloody White Baron while visiting Mongolia and became sufficiently intrigued to begin further research. The result is a truly gripping biography of one of the most dangerous madmen of the 20th century.

Like Adolf Hitler, Ungern-Sternberg was born in Austria in the 1880s, was an ethnic German and grew up without benefit of a father (although in the baron’s case, his mother divorced his father after the latter went mad). Both also served in the army as corporals, Ungern-Sternberg during the Russo-Japanese War. Each was obsessed with occult mysticism, although in Ungern-Sternberg’s case it was Mongolian Buddhism rather than Aryan mythology. Both shared a pathological hatred of Communists, republicans, revolutionaries, intellectuals and Jews, and both were happy to commit the most atrocious crimes in order to realize their twisted visions of the world.

Ungern-Sternberg grew up in Estonia. A descendent of the Teutonic Knights, who had conquered that Baltic nation hundreds of years earlier, he envisioned himself heir to those elite warrior-monks. Like the fictional Darth Vader, however, Ungern-Sternberg eschewed the righteous path of knighthood to pursue a darker course.

Rejoining the Russian army in World War I, Ungern-Sternberg gained a reputation as a courageous if unstable officer. Amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution, he traveled back to East Asia, and by 1919 he had effectively established his own private feudal fiefdom in Mongolia. There Ungern-Sternberg attacked Red, White and Chinese troops alike and murdered Chinese, Jews and any other refugees who fell into the hands of his thuggish soldiers. He even murdered his own troops when he suspected them of disloyalty or breaches of discipline.

Not content with misruling his own territory, in 1921 Ungern-Sternberg began a military campaign to overthrow the Bolsheviks. To do so, he secured the support of the Bogd Khan, the Mongolian religious and secular leader, who declared Ungern-Sternberg the rein carnation of the Buddhist war god, as well as of Genghis Khan himself.

Fortunately for posterity, Ungern-Sternberg’s mad dream lasted but a few months. Defeated by the Bolsheviks, his own soldiers turned him over to the Soviets. Prosecuted for “collusion with Japan, attempting to overthrow the revolution and restore the Romanovs and perpetrating terror and atrocities,” Ungern-Sternberg only contested the collusion charge. Though conceding the baron was mentally ill, the court stated that executing him would be “similar to the compassion we show a sick animal when we finish it off.”

Palmer’s book conveys macabre enthusiasm in every monstrous anecdote on the man he describes as “an appalling human being in almost every way, [whose] pleasures were violent and [who] lived in a world increasingly— and rightfully—hostile to the values he believed in.” The reader is left in no doubt as to how he came to be that way, given such role models as a great-great-grandfather, who “would daily line up his servants and give them 10 strokes of the rod apiece, just in case they had done something to deserve it.”

The Bloody White Baron is a juicy page-turner of a book for those who relish vicarious sadism. It leaves one thankful that nearly a century separates us from this sinister and deeply demented would-be successor to Genghis Khan.

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Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here