The Bloody White Baron
By James Palmer
288pp, Faber, £18.99
Reviewed by Valerie Sartor
In his first and already highly acclaimed book: The Bloody White Baron, Mr. James Palmer entertained his readers with historical but gruesome anecdotes about a psychotic nobleman, Baron Unger, who had the fantasies of being the reincarnation of Genghis Khan.
"This man, although insane, is the reason there is an Inner and an Outer Mongolia," said Mr. Palmer while talking about his book at The Beijing Bookworm late June. Palmer is a youthful but quite knowledgeable historian and also a curious young Englishman now living in Beijing.
"The Chinese used to control both Mongolias," said Mr. Palmer. "If it had not been for the crazed adventures of this misfit Baron then Russia might never have gotten involved in taking over this territory we now know as (Outer) Mongolia." By driving Chinese forces out of Mongolia this man opened the way for Soviet takeover. When Baron Unger arrived in Ulaan Bataar and began his violent but almost mystical crusade toward 'freeing' Mongolians with the notorious but religious authority of Mongolia Bogd Khan, he was initially welcomed by many residents.
"The Mongolians latched on to him because they did not realize that he was crazy," Mr. Palmer explained. "He created a sort of mad, sadistic wonderland, couched in spiritual Buddhist terminology, anti-Semitic violence and dreams of a monarchy – all of which the Mongolians initially perceived as a nationalistic movement toward independence." After the Mongolians turned against him, the Baron returned to Russia, rampaging and killing Jews until the Red Guard caught and executed him.
Baron Unger (Nikolai Roman Maximilian Ungern-Sternberg) didn't start out completely crazy but his family was not ideal by any means. Male members in his family history were blackguards and bandits. Born into a Germanic noble family in the Baltic state of Estonia in 1885, Ungern's parents divorced when he was six. He seems to have had mental issues and a history of violence from childhood. His father was also given to violent rages. Although Mr. Palmer used no direct biographical sources: diaries, intimate letters or an autobiographical memoir, he was able to trace this aristocrat's life and discover that he had grossly tormented his schoolmates and been expelled from elite educational institutes.
"Most of my research materials were written by Poles, Czechs and Russians, and they are not reliable sources because the genre they wrote in was a kind of semi-mystical and adventure-travel type of format," Mr. Palmer confessed. In his book, Mr. Palmer quotes frequently from Beasts, Men and God, a book by the Polish writer Ossendowski. "But I spent many months going through archives in Eastern Europe and Mongolia looking for facts," he added. His resulting book is both accurate and a fascinating read, making it seem almost like a novel rather than a dry historical biography.
"When writing a biography the researcher often either becomes attached to his subject or absolutely loathes him. In my case it was rather the latter, because the more I found out about this man, with his whole history of violence and casual contempt for others, the less I liked him," the young historian said.
Mr. Palmer carefully traced the Baron's career. Like many men of his noble background and era he joined the Russian Army and served in the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904. Rising in the ranks and known for his suicidal bravery (that actually signaled mental instability), Ungern was promoted to general in the First World War. Baron Ungern joined the Whites when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. He served under Japanese backed General Semenov, who was also known for his instability and cruelty. During this time Baron Ungern was appointed governor of Dauria, a Siberian outpost. Crazed and delusional, in 1920 he quit this position and invaded Mongolia with a private army funded by his own money. He had patched together several thousand soldiers from 16 ethnic minorities, including Cossacks, Buryats and Russians.
This crazed Baltic nobleman had visions of restoring the late Tsar's brother to the throne, recreating the magnificence of the Mongolian empire, and propping up a corrupt, diseased Mongolian lama: the so-called "living god-king" Bogd Khan. The delusional Baron was a fanatical Buddhist of sorts; during his tenure in Mongolia the Baron wore a Mongolian yellow robe and supported a type of violent pantheism that was upheld by horrifying acts of medieval cruelty. Jews were murdered, lamas hanged, soldiers flogged and tortured, women attacked and killed by choking them to death, all under the guise of military discipline and religious discipline and government edicts.
Mr. Palmer pointed out in his talk and in his book that Baron Unger's mental instability has great parallels to Hitler and arose at least a decade before Hitler attained power. "If Baron's behavior had been more widely known," Mr. Palmer said, "perhaps some of the horrific anti-Semetic behavior in Germany could have been lessened or at least predicted and avoided to some extent." Both Hitler and Unger had charisma, military courage and a sociopathic contempt for the opinions of others. Both were ascetic and abstained from alcohol (although Ungern was an opium addict) and both were rabid anti-Semites. These two men felt that they were superior to other humans and their overwhelming vision gave them supreme confidence in their personal "mission."
After leaving Mongolia Baron Ungern was captured in 1921, put on trial and executed by the Red Army for his crimes and political affiliations with the White Army. Russia entered and claimed Outer Mongolia as part of their territory, and ruled the land until 1991. Today Outer Mongolia is an independent country but many aspects of its current development are now being funded and implemented by the Chinese.
Mr. Palmer's book has been well received by the general public and also by established historians. Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, a contemporary specialist in Russian history, stated that The Bloody White Baron is "an enjoyable, exciting biography that recounts the crimes and conquests of this monster compellingly, colorfully and with cinematic relish."
(China.org.cn August 5, 2008)