Roman von Ungern-Sternberg | Harry Page
The story reads like something out of an unrealistic Paradox game playthrough. A German Officer in the Russian Army chases after left-wing rebels in a Civil War, becomes a steppe horse warlord and reveals himself as a right-wing Buddhist who wants to revive the Mongol Empire with the help of the Dalai Lama, all whilst his superiors in European Russia desperately try to preserve the Romanov legacy against Bolshevism. I’m going to talk about the extraordinary life of the minor aristocrat and later General Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. If you were lost at Right wing Buddhism, it’s understandable. There’s a lot of things going on here. Let’s go back a century, to Victoria’s Europe.
Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was born in Graz, Austria-Hungary in 1886. Von Ungern-Sternberg was Baltic German nobility (Von is an aristocratic prefix). The Baltic Germans were a large and influential minority important to Industrialisation; almost half of Riga’s population in the 19th Century were ethnic Germans. Their roots lay in the shipping families of the Hanseatic League. For Mallard readers unfamiliar with the pre-modern conception of nationhood and belonging, it wasn’t contradictory or uncommon to have German ancestry and family in Mitteleuropa but loyalty to the Russian Monarch, indeed our own Crown’s name was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha at the start of the First World War. It mattered equally to be Western and Christian (something he would later move away from). A man of international roots, Von Ungern-Sternberg was naturally Russian, growing up in the holdout of serf-feudalism, absolute monarchy and serious attendance to an unreformed Orthodox religion. In schooling at the turn of the Century he was noted as a rebel and a bully who couldn’t be disciplined and would go around beating up other kids.
At some point after the Russo-Japanese War Von Ungern-Sternberg began diving into what literature he could find on ‘Tibetan and Hindu’ philosophy, meaning the Dharmic religions plus the Bon religion of Tibet. This wouldn’t have been easy to come by in libraries either public or private. Von Ungern-Sternberg became fascinated with the occult in general but specifically Tibetan Buddhism and geometry. One way of putting across this appeal to a madman is that the European aristocracies at the time believed in very good manners, maintaining the long peace of the 19th Century and would frequent balls and garden parties, hardly nomadic total war. Another appeal would be that there was a small but growing interest sparked by the Raj administration in the linguistic and cultural connection between classical India and Europe. The Buddhist tradition also has very different assumptions to the Christian tradition. In any case, the Baron actively sought and won appeal to serve in the Reserve Regiments on the Mongol border as the Chinese Qing Empire collapsed, his first time there
Von Ungern-Sternberg was impacted by the defeat against Japan in 1905. This wasn’t because he was anti-Asian and couldn’t believe Asians could defeat a European power as was popular at the time (he leaned towards the opposite view in fact, that the European Enlightenment would be defeated on the battlefield with Asian cavalry). During the 1905 Revolution mobs of angry Russian peasants attempted to seize the Baltic German estates and lynch the owners and farmhands. A believer in inequality and a personal friend of some of the affected families, Roman Von Ungern-Sternberg became a lifelong anti-Communist.
The First World War and Russian Civil War were almost entirely within European Russia west of the Ural Mountains. Siberia was and remains distant and secondary to the European regions which colonised Russian Asia. For most of the last 1000 years and into Von Ungern-Sternberg’s life Europeans called the entire region above the Islamic and Chinese civilisations Tartary. For Lenin this was politically and militarily the last region on the wish list to bring under control. As the battles were won and the Bolsheviks advanced, the doctrine of expanding Communism outside Russia came calling. Exiled Communists from Mongolia, of all places, wanted the help of the Soviets in claiming Urga (Ulan Bator). The Mongols had declared Independence from both the Qing Empire in her demise and the new disorderly Han Chinese Republic, they had only received recognition as a country from fellow breakaway Tibet. The Chinese in 1919 re-occupied Mongolia and cracked down on dissenters. How could the Red Armies, if they even wanted to, liberate that isolated country without fighting China? Here comes in the intrigue of our rogue the Mad Baron.
Von Ungern-Sternberg fought against the Germans from 1914 with distinction for bravery including the Cross of St George. As the Russian contribution to the Great War wound down with the October Revolution, he became determined to roll back Communism and set up trying to establish a white, meaning anti-Bolshevik, paramilitary force. For Von Ungern-Sternberg and his emerging circle, the white Generals fighting their separate campaigns against Lenin were wets, compromising on the role of the Tsar in society against the Duma. The Tsar’s authority was divine, not by popular consent. Their actions as Tsarist officers on the Baikal and in Mongolia were rarely in line with the wishes of the white Armies doing the bulk of the fighting, in practise this was a maverick movement all in itself. We’ve already seen that Von Ungern-Sternberg was privately interested in oriental religion, now he would go above his duties as a Russian soldier and into ‘mad baron’ territory, in lay Internet terminology the man would go LARPing hard.
The blind Bogd Khan, the spiritual leader of Mongolia and in his own right the third most important person in Tibetan Buddhism, wanted to free his country from Chinese occupation. By their good fortune, the would-be Khanate had a follower not far across the border. The Mad Baron had been stationed here before the Great War, and sympathised with the Tibetan Buddhist metaphysics. He would come to believe in the Buddhas and in turn Mongol people rumoured from his many near assassinations and near deaths in battle that he was the reincarnation of Jamsaran, the War God.
Like the Mad Baron and allegedly the Lamas in Lhasa, the Bogd Khan accepted violence and the displacement of Jews- associated of course equally with immoral money-lending and with Marxist intellectuals and the early Soviet leadership. This was not mushy white women, yoga and Starbucks loyalty card Buddhism. This was indigenous and unusually militant Buddhism carving out a vast new nomadic and warlike, masculine country in-between Russia, China and India. A former white officer Dmitri Alioshin said of the Mad Baron’s belief in reincarnation
“he firmly believed that in killing the feeble people he only did them good, as they would be stronger beings in their next life”.
The Baron would liberate the Khan in Urga in 1921 after several abortive attempts, which ran on the strategy of asking monks to talk to spirits. The city was sacked for three days and three nights. Chinese, Jews and people accused of being Bolshevik spies were killed on the spot. You could say the Mongols had decolonised themselves. They became a theocracy under the protection of the Baron’s Asiatic Cavalry Division. His troops were a ragtag multi-ethnic assembly of Russian and Cossack veterans from the First World War, Mongols, Tuvans and smaller nomadic minorities. Partly the Baron was aided by Japan. The Japanese were as invested in defeating Communism in the cradle as Britain, Poland et al. We don’t have precise figures but Soviet Intelligence in the Civil War reckoned there were ‘tens’ of Japanese officers physically with him, providing weapons and cash. The Japanese wanted to annex East Asia through the optics of a ‘pan Asian Empire’ and would happily work with white-led Mongolians and Buryats.
The Mad Baron would complete his namesake through developing his family history. Von Ungern-Sternberg had Hungarian heritage and through this claimed descent from Genghis Khan. Other sources say he had long boasted to be related in nomadic aristocracy to Atilla the Hun (in Edwardian race science it was hotly disputed whether Hungarians were white European, seeing as they had migrated into Europe on horses from as far away as modern-day Kazakhstan). In May 1921, he declared himself Emperor of Russia, from Mongolia. Happily the Red Army would snatch him up, as Mongolia under the Khanate was no longer Chinese, they could double up the invasion by installing Communists in the region.
For some time, the Mad Baron had free reign to kill people. People were shot, stabbed, burned at the stake or in worse gruesome ways. Children were killed freely. Unlike refugees before and since, the Russian and oriental populations here were trapped. To the South was the Gobi Desert, to the North West were the Bolsheviks, very cruel in their own right and below them to the south-west was Tibet, the Bogd Khan’s only ally. In Shaanxi and Manchuria were militias of the new Chinese warlord period, less likely to kill you outright but hardly appealing and in any case several thousand miles away without the luxury trains or cars.
Eventually the Mad Baron would be captured. He wasted his division in the summer of 1921 entering Russia where the Red Army was prepared for him. He was wounded by mutinying troops and captured by Bolsheviks. He was sent off west to face trial in Novosibirsk, Siberia. No doubt the legitimacy of the trial and of the courts was dubious at best. The Revolution was just shy of four years old and the law was freshly written. A number of the Bolsheviks including Lenin himself had read Law at University. The Baron’s trial was a show trial lasting six hours. As an Aristocrat by birth and a General from the Ancien Régime he was surely finished. He addressed the court
For a thousand years the Ungerns have given other people orders. We have never taken orders from anyone. I refuse to accept the authority of the working class.
Perhaps uniquely however the charges against him could not be trumped up. The Baron was a sick man and recreational torturer, his Cavalry were plunderers beyond what was necessary to feed themselves.
One of the last Tsarist officers to hold out against the new Soviet Union, Roman Von Ungern-Sternberg was executed that same night by firing squad. The Bogd Khan died in 1924. His reincarnation only died in 2012, spending most of his life without a title because of the Sino-Soviet worlds atheism. The search for the current Mongol Khan is ongoing.
The Mallard Rogues criteria asks for historical figures who are ‘remarkable, unconventional, eccentric, authentic, or anomalous’. No doubt Von Ungern-Sternberg meets all of these. A niche and absurd figure, he wouldn’t have risen to such prominence in East Asia without the chaos and anarchy allowed by the collapse of the Russian Empire. Von Ungern-Sternberg appears in a smattering few places I could draw upon as I wrote this: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Titans of History, Peter Hopkirks Setting the East Ablaze (which I found in a bohemian second hand bookshop) and indubitably his Wikipedia page. A terror upon Mongolia and Siberia and a true believer in hyper-reactionary Eurasian philosophy, the mad baron is surely a rogue amongst rogues.