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

Special note: It was Lexington Green who brought this book to my attention.

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, guerrillas, 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, 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 in 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.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Bloody White Baron”

  1. How many such men are thrashing in their chains, constrained to struggle to adapt to a normalcy that does not suit them, that is a burden they can barely sustain? When the cracks appear in a civilization, there are men who cannot wait to push the edifice down. There are many things we have swept under the rug in our understanding of World War I. We in the Anglophone West read poems by Wilfred Owen and imagine that mourning over dead, beautiful young men is the whole tale. Yet there are plenty of stories of people who felt liberated and even exultant amidst universal destruction, a life of simplicity, masculinity, danger, hunting and killing human enemies, with no softness or femininity or comfort or obligations. On a continuum from Owen to Ungern, we can put Junger and Richtofen, and many others. There are even some English writers who express some attraction to this life. See e.g. F.P. Crozier A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land.

    To fail to see the Great War as a repudiation of Victorian and Edwardian normalcy and order, by a vast number of people, mostly young men, is to fail to make sense of the next few decades.

    Ungern was perhaps the most extreme exponent of this trend.

  2. Hi Stan

    Palmer both uses Ossendowski as a source ( the book, private papers) and critiques his reliability as a witness.

    Hi Lex,

    Likewise, postwar many of the “Lost Generation” were unable to “go back” and live a civilized life, whether they had begun the war like von-Sternberg or Hitler or were simply brutalized by the experience. They had become adrenaline addicts in the trenches and came home craving action and a recreation of the sense of unified camraderie in the postwar disorder that reigned from Germany to Manchuria. The ranks of Fascism and Stalinism were filled by these “can do”, pitiless, tough guys and armed bohemians.

  3. The phrase “armed bohemians” seems to come from The Fuhrer: Hitler’s Rise to Power (1944) by Konrad Heiden. There is an interesting contemporary fascinating book review here, which contains this passage:

    thousands of youthful, ex-Army officers were streaming back from defeat to poverty and unemployment in the Weimar Republic. They were “armed intellectuals,” war-hardened products of Germany’s prewar universities. They became an “army of the armed bohemians, of heroes and murderers by conviction . . . too strong and influential to be extinguished by force.” They had lost prestige, social position, ideals—”tossed this way and that way,” wrote one of them, “just for the sake of our daily bread; gathering men about us and playing soldiers with them; brawling and drinking, roaring and smashing windows—destroying and shattering . . . ruthless and inexorably hard.”

    Did you get the expression from Heiden?

  4. You are correct, chapter II, I believe though I had forgotten the phrase “armed intellectuals” which is worth ressurecting in its own right.”Armed bohemians” though captures the meandering, de-racinated character of these stateless freebooters. Agents of chaos.

  5. A couple of completely unverified quotes that I came across while grazing (Midwesterners don’t surf) today seem apposite:

    “The price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, anytime, and with utter recklessness.” — Robert A. Heinlein

    “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln

  6. “It is well that war is so terrible, else men would love it too much.”
    –Robert E. Lee, Fredericksburg, 1862

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