Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, 1885-1921: Bloody White Baron

The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer, Basic Books, 2011.

It doesn’t much matter how vile, cruel, insane, despicable a person may be, if the war or country he’s disgracing is obscure, his bad behavior will probably also be obscure.  It was this unfortunate fact that led Hitler to tell doubters that no one remembered the Armenian genocide, and that no one would remember what the Nazis might do.

Wrong on both particulars. The Armenians are getting their overdue press.  That said, there is a depressing truth in the general concept. The victims of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg are still more or less a footnote to the list of atrocious murderers of the twentieth century,  though God knows he tried.

Ungern identified as Russian despite being born of a mostly Baltic-German stock in Estonia. (Estonia had had a largish population of Germans for generations – family tradition holds that before the war, one of my great uncles ran the German theater in Riga, Latvia).

He was a wild child, kicked out of several school for appalling behavior (“anger issues” in the current euphemism) and even had difficulty adjusting to the army which thought him more trouble than he was worth.  Perhaps it was intentional that he was sent far east to deal with border troubles between Russian and Japan or periodically the Chinese.

He found the area congenial, the steppe peoples and the darker strain of Mongolian Buddhism with its strange and violent gods.  Ungern had his own ideas about management:

“In Transbaikalia, I tried to form the Order of Military Buddhists for an uncompromising fight against the depravity of revolution.”

The order permitted unlimited vodka,  hashish, and opium, but total renunciation of women, strictures which proved counterproductive and were quashed soon enough. Well, as Palmer notes, there are various interpretations of Buddhism in the world, some of them quite odd. After this experiment, Ungern drifted towards the more ascetic (he would come to dress in near rags) strain of faith influenced by some of the more frightening gods of the frontier pantheon.

It was about this time that Ungern became determined to  help the Mongolians shake off the Chinese yoke.

The First World War intervened.

In battle, Ungern found his métier.  He got himself assigned to a Cossack Brigade in Galicia and by all that was statistical, he should have died twice over.  Certainly the rest of his brigade did.  Instead, his name turns up in the records again and again for astonishing personal bravery, charging the enemy at the head of his men, astound both friends and enemy alike.

He is also, however, criticized for an indifference to other men’s orders and a tendency towards violent hooliganism when off duty.  Despite a chestful of medals, he was more or less kicked out of the service before Russia left the fight.

With little else on offer, he and a fellow officer Grigory Sememov headed to the Turkish border and raised a number of Christian Assyrian volunteers whose fellow Christians were being exterminated by Kurds, Turks and Persians.*  Little came of it.

Once the Czar was deposed and murdered and the civil war broke out between the Red Bolsheviks and the White Nationalists, Ungern fell stoutly among the anti-Bolsheviks (and coincidentally, the anti-Semites).  The Bolsheviks needed Siberia for natural resources and various White Army forces (and even British and American troops) were determined they should not have it.

He, along with Semenov,  returned east to press the fight.  Ungern got it into his head that Mongolia (then under Chinese rule) should be ruled by a latter day Genghis Khan, specifically, the Bogd Gegeen.  The Bogd Gegeen was the eight incarnation of third highest Tibetan lama who wanted an independent Mongolia (unlike Chinese and Russians, who each wanted to add to their respective empires).

How Ungern practiced war in this distant world makes for grim reading indeed.  There’s the story of his driving a group of men into the middle of the freezing Tula river, naked, where they attracted wolves, against whom they were forced to fight barehanded.  Half the men survived.

These, by the way, were his own men, being punished for drunkenness. Prisoners could expect a decidedly non-Geneva Convention, much less Marquess of Queensbury treatment.  No freezing for Bolsheviks – his enemies Ungern ordered to be slow roasted.

His greatest military success came in taking the capital city of Urga (Ulan Bator) from Chinese control. In the custom of conquerors throughout the ages, he allowed his men free reign to run wild.  The Jewish population got the worst of it.  Men, women, and children were ordered killed, regardless of station; communists also.  By these means he got the Bogd Gegeen on the throne and the Chinese out of Outer Mongolia.

He could not do the same with the Bolsheviks, try as he might.  The soothsayers he hired to accompany him on campaign could do little more than confirm the time of his impending death.  It may have concentrated his mind, but it did not win the war for him.  The fighting on the frontier was brutal, but in the end, out-manned and out-gunned,  he was captured while attempting to invade Russia in 1921. The trial lasted a little over six hours, the execution took place that same day.

The Bogd Gegeen died in 1924 and Mongolian Communists quickly filled the vacuum,  squelching any talk of a ninth reincarnation.  (Number Nine did turn up in 1932 in Tibet and died in March of 2012. No word yet on Number Ten.)

Outside some residual memories of Dr Zhivago, this is not a time or an area that is familiar to a lot of westerners. Not surprisingly then, there is a good deal of ground laying that needs to be done and a whole lot of people and places to get and keep straight. Regrettably, there are no illustrations other than the cover, though their are two good maps. There are some surprising editing slips (it’s Brest-Litovsk, not Brest-Livotsk) and characterization of the eighth Bogd Gegeen as a wastrel has been refuted in subsequent material.  The subtitle calling Ungern the last Khan is a bit of a stretch –  the title was an honorific given him by the Bogd Gegeen, but it carried no authority.

Still, it is just as well that the thing could be done at all, and for all that this is a widely neglected time and place, the events that Ungern was involved in with helped shape the fate of Mongolia for the rest of the century.

Other books worth a look include:

Jamie Bisher, White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian,  Routledge, 2009 – Brightly written and authoritative, even indispensable for this time and place.

Antoni Ferdynand Ossendowski, Beasts Men and Gods, 1922. The book was a best seller in its day and was said to have set him up for life. Good that somebody benefited from the horror of it all.


*The Assyrian Genocide of 1916-1917 is said to have reduced the Assyro-Chaldean population by three quarters.   The outlook for the survivors and their children still in Iraqi appears bleak.


5 thoughts on “Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, 1885-1921: Bloody White Baron

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  4. My Find-a-Grave memorial to the Baron:

    Birth: Dec. 29, 1885
    Graz Stadt
    Styria (Steiermark), Austria
    Death: Sep. 15, 1921
    Novosibirsk Oblast, Russia

    Hom? homin? lupus.
    ? ???????? ????? ????? ??? ??? ???????.
    Mees on hunt inimesele.
    Der Mensch ist Wolf für den Menschen.
    ??????? ???????? ????.
    M A N IS W O L F TO M A N.

    ONOMASTICS: Robert Nicholaus Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (at baptism) ??????-???????-??????????? ??? ??????-?????????; Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg aka Roman Nikolai Maximilian Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg, russified to ????? ?????? ??????? ??????????? ??? ??????-????????? or ????? ??????? ??????????? ???????? ??? ??????-????????? or ????? ????? ????????? ??? ??????-????????? or ????? ????????? ???????? ??? ??????-?????????.

    O.S. 29 December 1885/N.S. 10 January 1886-15 September 1921.

    Teodor Leonhard Rudolf von Ungern-Sternberg (1857-1918);
    Sofia Charlotta von Wimpffen aka Sophie Charlotte von Wimpffen aka Sophie Charlotte von Ungern-Sternberg (1861-1907).
    Divorced 1891, remarried April 1894.

    Florence Natalie von Ungern-Sternberg (1881-1883;
    Constance Sofie von Ungern-Sternberg (1883-1889);
    Constantin Robert Eginhard Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (1888-1945);
    Robert Nicolaus Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (?-?);

    Half-brother to:
    Helene Wilhelmine Gamalejev von Hoyningen Huene) (1895-?);
    Isabella Margaretha von Hoyningen-Huene (1897-?);
    Max Hermann Freiherr von Hoyningen-Huene (1899-?);
    Renée Maria Teodora Elisabet Bakelok von Ungern-Sternberg (1897-?).

    Stepson of: Maria von Ungern-Sternberg (1872-?).

    Wife: Helena Pavlovna von Ungern-Sternberg née Zsi (1900-?).

    Daughter: Martha von Ungern-Sternberg (1920-?).

    NOTE: The “?” for family members above show how well they “disappeared” in order to avoid assassins.

    Order of St. Anne 3rd Class (????? ?????? ???? 3-? ???????) September 1916;
    Order of St. Anne 4th Class ‘for bravery’ (????? ?????? ???? 4-? ??????? ? ???????? “?? ?????????”) 1914;
    Order of St. George 4th Class (????? ??????? ??????? 4-? ???????) 22 September 1914, Battle of Podborek/???????? awarded 27 December 1914;
    Order of St. Stanislaus 3rd Class (????? ??????? ?????????? 3-? ???????) 1915;
    Order of St. Vladimir 4th Class (????? ??????? ????????? 4-? ???????) 1915.

    CHILDHOOD: He was born in Graz, Styria, Austro-Hungarian Empire on O.S. 29 December 1885/N.S. 10 January 1886 to a noble Baltic-German family (Deutsch-Balten or Baltendeutsche or ?????????? ?????). His mother was Sophie Charlotte von Wimpffen, later Sophie Charlotte von Ungern-Sternberg (1861-1907), and his father was Theodor Leonhard Rudolf von Ungern-Sternberg (1857–1918). In 1888 his family moved to Reval (Tallinn after 1944), the capital of the Governorate of Estonia or the Duchy of Estonia (Eestimaa kubermang) within the Russian Empire (?????????? ???????/?????????? ???????), where his parents divorced three years later in 1891. In 1894 his mother married Oskar Anselm Herrmann von Hoyningen-Huene (1860-1918).
    From 1900-1902 Ungern attended the Nicholas I Gymnasium, Tallinn, now the The Gustav Adolf Grammar School (Suur-Kloostri 16, Tallinn, Harjumaa), Estonia.
    From 1 August 1902-February 1905 he studied in the Naval School aka Marine Officers Cadet School (??????? ????????? ??????/??????? ???????) in Saint Petersburg. In June 1905 he left the school to join the fighting (1-?? ?????? ? 91-? ???????? ???????? ????) in Eastern Russia during the Russo-Japanese War, but the armistice was signed within two months of his arrival.

    In 1906 Ungern was transferred to service in the Paul I Military Academy (?????????? ??????? ???????) in Saint Petersburg as a cadet of ordinary rank (??????? ???????? ?????).
    Ungern-Sternberg was a brilliant student but performed poorly in the strict Tsarist academic atmosphere.

    EARLY CAREER: After graduating in June 1908 he served as an officer in East Siberia in the 1st Argunsky Regiment of Transbaikal Cossack Forces (1-? ????????? ???? ?????????????? ????????? ??????, disbanded 1918) and in 1910 the 1st Amursky Cossack regiment (1-? ???????? ??????? ???????-????????? ????? ?????????-????????? ????, HQs Blagoveshchensk /????????????), where he became enthralled with the lifestyle of nomadic peoples such as the Mongols and Buryats. Ungern moved to Outer Mongolia to assist Mongols in their struggle for independence from China, but Russian officials prevented him from fighting with Mongolian troops. He arrived in the town of Khovd/???? in western Mongolia and served as out-of-staff (??? ?????) officer in the Cossack guard detachment at the Russian consulate. This was the period of the Mongolian Revolution of 1911, when Outer Mongolia declared its independence from the Manchu-led Qing dynasty ?? during the Xinhai ?? Revolution (October 1911-February 1912).
    In June 1913, at his request, he transferred to the reserves (???????) and went to Kobdo/?????.

    WORLD WAR 1:
    On 19 July 1914 Ungern joined front-line forces as part of the 34th Don Cossack Regiment (34-? ??????? ??????? ????) attached to the 2nd Guards Cavalry Division under LTG Gyorgi Ottonovich Rauch (??????? ????????? ????, 1860-1936) stationed on the Austrian frontier in Galicia.
    Ungern took part in the Russian offensive in East Prussia and from 1915-1916 he also participated in rear-action raids on German troops by the Leonid Nikolai Punin (?????? ??????? ????? 1892-1916) Cavalry Special Task Force. Throughout the war on the Eastern Front, Ungern gained a reputation as a brave but somewhat reckless officer. He was eventually discharged from one of his command positions for failing to obey orders.
    After the February Revolution in 1917, Ungern was transferred to the Caucasian theatre of the conflict, where Russia was fighting against the Ottoman Turks. In April 1917 near Urmia/Urmu/Urmiy?/Wirmê/??????/?????? ??????, Persian Empire (Qajar Dynasty), Ungern, together with Grigory Mikhaylovich Semyonov/Semenov (?????? ???????? ?????????? ???????, 1890-1946) started to organize a volunteer military unit composed of local Syriac Christians. Under Ungern’s command, they went on to score some minor victories over the Turks, but their total contribution to Russia’s war effort was limited.
    He was wounded five times during WW1.

    In July 1917 Semenov left Petrograd for the Trans-Baikal region. On 1 August 1917 he was named Commissioner of the Provisional Government in the Far East. Ungern, then a captain, accompanied. In October or November 1917, Ungern formed a counter-revolutionary group in Irkutsk. Then Semenov, Ungern and six others went to Chita/???? to conscript White troops.
    On 1 September 1918 Ungern formed the all-volunteer Asiatic Cavalry Division aka The Savage Division (????????? ?????? ???????, ????? ???????) formed in Dauria (??????). The Division was made up Bashkirs, Buryats, Czechs, Han Chinese, Japanese, Kalmyks, Manchu, Mongols, Poles, Russians, Tatars and others.
    On 7 February 1920 Supreme White Forces leader Adm. Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak/????????? ?????????? ?????? was executed by the Reds in Irkutsk.
    By 7 August 1920 Red victories in Far East had reduced The Savage Division to a partisan band. The group headed for Mongolia.
    On 4 February 1921 Ungern captured Urga, later Ulaanbaatar/Ulan Bator/???????????. Chinese occupation forces gave up Outer Mongolia 2 April 1921. Despite this, Ungern realized the White cause was lost and his plans changed to establishing a monarchist Christian and Buddhist empire in Mongolia, Manchuria, China, and Eastern Turkestan—a revival of the empire of Genghis Khan stretching from the Pacific to the Caspian with Russia dominating.
    While contemplating evacuation to Tibet, Ungern’s troops mutinied and discipline collapsed. Ungern was arrested by Mongol partisans and turned over to 5th Red Army (HQs Troitskosarsk) 20 August 1921.
    Lenin was apprised of the capture by phone 26 August 1921.
    On 5 September 1921 the show trial began in the summer theatre in Sosnova Park (the site today is occupied by factories lining Spartak Street), Novonikolaevsk/?????????????? renamed Novosibirsk/ ???????????? in 1926.
    The “trial” lasted 6 1/4 hours and ended with Ungern’s death by firing squad.

    On 25 September 1998 the Novosibirsk oblast Presidum refused a petition to rehabilitate Ungern-Sternberg.

    In March 2013 representatives of the Mongolian nationalist party Tsagaan Khas/ ?????? ??? (“White Swastika”) began arrangements for a monument to Ungarn-Sternberg in Ulaanbaatar/Ulan Bator/???????????, Mongolia.

    In the words of Baron Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel or Vrangel/????? ???? ?????????? ????????, Baron Pyotr Nikolayevich Vrangel aka Peter Freiherr von Wrangel (1878-1928), the young Baron was a “warrior by temperament,” who “lived for war” and adhered to his own set of “elemental laws.” Dmitri Pershin aka Dmitri Daursky (1861-1936) observed, “when one observed Ungern, one felt himself carried back to the Middle Ages…; [he was] a throwback to his crusader ancestors, with the same thirst for war and the same belief in the supernatural.”

    The philosopher Count Hermann Alexander von Keyserling (1880-1946) born in Kõnnu, Pärnu County, Kaisma Parish, Estonia knew Roman and his brother Constantin from childhood. Keyserling later regarded the Baron as “the most remarkable person I have ever had the good fortune to meet,” but also a mass of contradictions. He saw Ungern as one whose “nature was suspended… in the void between heaven and hell,” someone “capable of highest intuition and loving kindness” alongside “the most profound aptitude for the metaphysics of cruelty.” The Baron’s metaphysical ideas, Keyserling believed, were “closely related to those of the Tibetans and Hindus.” Keyserling was convinced that Roman possessed the occult power of “second sight” and “the faculty of prophecy.”

    Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola aka Julius Evola (1898-1974) opined that Baron Ungern possessed “supernormal faculties” including clairvoyance and the ability to “look into the souls” of others.

    The Latvian Antoni Ferdynand Ossendowski (1876-1945) claimed that he did exactly that at their initial meeting. “I have been in your soul and know all,” the Baron proclaimed.

    Much the same is repeated in the testimony of others who knew Ungern. Dmitri D. Aleshin/Alioshin/Aloishin/Alyoshin (??????? ?. ??????) (?-?) in his 1940 memoir felt that he “possessed a dangerous power of reading people’s thoughts.” He recounts how Ungern would inspect recruits by staring into each man’s face, “hold that gaze for a few moments, and then bark: ‘To the army!; ‘Back to the cattle!; ‘Liquidate!. Dr. N.M. Riabukhin aka N.M. Ryabukhin (?-?), staff physician, mentioned that on their first meeting “it was as though the Baron wanted to leap into my soul.” Another anonymous officer recounts that “Ungern looked at everyone with the eyes of a beast of prey,” and this instilled fear in all who met him.
    A Polish artillerist in Mongol service, Alexander Alexandrowicz (?-?), accepted the Baron’s “second sight” and believed that it was his “superior” intellect that helped him “size up any man in a few minutes.”
    Alioshin described Ungern-Sternberg’s final retreat followed by his capture in this way: “[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 the reincarnation of a prehistoric ape-man. People were afraid to look at him.”

    19th Cent. heraldists and genealogists traced the Ungern-Sternbergs back to Attila the Hun (434-453).
    The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (Tibetan ????????????????? (1876-1933) officially blessed Ungern for his work and said that he was a physical incarnation of Mah?k?la (mah? (????; “great”) and k?la (???; “time, death”) “The One Beyond Death”.
    Minutes before dying, Ungern chewed and swallowed his St. George’s Cross so no Bolshevik would have it.
    At the moment of execution, a bullet struck one of Ungern’s Buddhist talismans, ricocheted and hit one of the shooters in the face.
    His exact death date was supposedly foretold by Buddhist monks.

    “My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is true and what is false, what is history, and what is myth.” (during his show trial)

    Family links:
    Theodor Leonhard Rudolf von Ungern-Sternberg (1857 – 1918)
    Sophia Charlotta von Wimpffen (1861 – 1907)

    Helena Pavlovna von Zsi Ungern-Sternberg

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