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On Being Mystical and Mad in Mongolia
by Valerie Sartor
2008-07-19 08:42:18
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Book
The Bloody White Baron
By James Palmer
2008, Faber & Faber
On June 26 at 7:30 PM Mr. James Palmer, a youthful but quite knowledgeable historian, gave a talk at The Beijing Bookworm about his first and already highly acclaimed book: The Bloody White Baron.

Mr. Palmer is a curious young Englishman living in Beijing. Casually attired and sweetly smiling, he entertained his rapt audience 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,” Mr. Palmer said by way of introducing the Baron.

“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 at first 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. Mr. Palmer vividly described how the Baron as a boy tried to strangle another classmate’s owl. To make matter worse, 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 institues.

“Most of my research materials were writen 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, explaining that in Mongolia he hired locals to do the work because “In Mongolia if a foreigner goes through the archives it is 50 dollars an hour but only 5 for a native.” 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 remarked.

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 signalled mental instability), Ungern was promoted to calvalry 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. Mr. Palmer described a few of the ordeals but joked with his audience that they must buy his book to get all the truly horrible details. In any case, he recounted that 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 the Baron’s behavior had been more widely known,” Mr. Palmer said, “perhaps some of the horrific anti-Semitic 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. These two men both were rabid anti-Semites and wanted to exterminate Jews “down to the seed” - they believed in a conspiracy theory. Both were ascetic and abstained from alcohol (although Ungern was an opium addict). 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 is now being funded and implemented by the Chinese. Mr. Palmer pointed out that the Mongolians today still prefer the Russians over the Chinese, perhaps because the Russians did not try to make them assimilate and lose their culture.

“I’ve not got any sentimental attachment to Baron Unger,” said James Palmer, “but I can say two good things about him. First: he was absolutely honest about what he was doing: he didn’t hide his feelings or mortivations or actions, as the Germans did during the Nurmemberg trials. And second, he kept the Chinese out of this part of Mongolia. The Russians had no previous interest in the area but because of him they came and took over and, as a result, Mongolia has retained its culture, language and independence from China, at least to date.

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.”

    
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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-19 10:45:15
Anybody who makes oneself an object of narcisistic worship usually ends up as a monster and a sociopath. Indeed Genghis Kahn would have been proud of Baron Unger and so would the two Roman emperors of old Caligula and Nero, not to mention our contemporary monster versions: Hitler and Stalin. Some have compared unger alledged mysticism and adventurism to that of Lawerence of Arabia and in fact there exists a film about Baron Unger titled “The Wild Boar.” But there the comparison ends. For such a comparison can only issue from confusing religion and mysticism with cults and political fanaticism, and irrational substitution for religion.


LL2008-07-20 01:42:53
facinating - thank you so much. It is quite complex to the point of well, who could make such stuff up?


Mongolian2008-11-13 22:20:47
China never ever controlled outer Mongolia. It was Manchu Dynasty that controlled both China and Russia. Please make a clarification to this matter


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