The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

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The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: An intriguing, enjoyable, if somewhat flawed biography of an obscure yet fascinating megalomaniac, Baron Ungern, who formed and led an army in an attempt to establish Mongolian independence. It combines travelogue and an exploration of historical, religious and political movements, around the time of WW1 and the Russian revolution.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571230242

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In The Bloody White Baron we meet the memorable and terrifying character of Baron Ungern, or to give him his full birth name, Nikolai Roman Maximilian Ungern-Sternberg, born four years before Hitler in 1885 and sharing many of the same characteristics – charisma, an overwhelming sense of vision, great military bravery, contempt for the opinion of others, teetotal (though Ungern was addicted to opium), asceticism, rabid anti-Semitism and a strong sense of personal superiority. Austrian-born to German parents, Ungern's aristocratic upbringing in Estonia, his love of horsemanship and military life drew him to a troubled career in the Russian military, with a finale as leader of a cavalry army in Mongolia, funded from his own purse and rampant looting. He was proud of his warlike ancestors, who bore names like 'the Axe' and 'Brother of Satan'; his great-great-grandfather was a shipwrecker and bandit. His father was subject to violent rages, resulting in five years in a mental institution; his parents divorced when Ungern was six.

Although detail is at times sketchy and speculative, James Palmer's first book traces misfit Ungern's life from his early years – a reluctant student, who once attempted to strangle a classmate's pet owl, expelled from various schools – through his early military career – much of it languishing in military jail and expelled/transferred from regiments after violence towards other officers, yet always somehow saved by his aristocratic connections – through his eventual amazing rise to lead a self-funded, ruthless, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual army aiming to achieve an independent Mongolia. His wild adventures close with his capture, trial and execution by the Red Army in September 1921, with the book closing by reviewing the lives of Ungern's fellow travellers and his faint, yet detectable, continued influence on the political and religious life of Mongolia.

I confess to struggling somewhat with the earlier chapters, especially that entitled Between Heaven And Hell, which explores the background to Ungern's religious beliefs – he was drawn to Buddhism, which is generally not associated in the west with Ungern's violent nature and fondness for torture. This is unfortunate, as of itself it makes for interesting reading. However, as this book professes to be a biography, sight of Ungern's name is brief here, and this reader began to long for progress in his story. I do still admire Palmer's attempt to provide information on esoteric subjects, such as the period's interest in theosophy and the occult, combined with a summary of Tibetan Buddhism.

As an exciting story, The Bloody White Baron really begins to pick up pace after Ungern's release from military prison in January 1917, when his association with Captain Gregori Semenov, a charming and canny Cossack, changed the rest of his life and led to his Mongolian adventures (along with his anti-Bolshevik sympathies). Palmer even tentatively suggests that there may have been a homosexual attraction between the two (Ungern was briefly married to a Chinese aristocrat, but it's likely the marriage was never consummated and he divorced his bride after a short period). Ungern's consequent military adventures make for fascinating if often gruesome reading – he demanded the strictest of discipline from his soldiers, with punishments including forcing transgressors to sleep overnight in a tree, then killing them if they fell out and injured themselves. Civilians might be burned to death; prisoners, deserters and traitors might be flogged then killed with a live grenade inserted into their mouth or anus. Everywhere his cavalry rode, death was sure to follow.

Palmer admits that finding detailed and consistent evidence on the life of Ungern was no easy task. His sources were limited, contradictory and frequently anecdotal; sometimes assumptions have been made to create a picture of the man, without a firm foundation. To round out the image of Ungern's personality and actions, Palmer quotes substantially from Beasts, Men and God by Polish writer Ferdinand Ossendowski, considered an unreliable memoir and described by some reviewers as a novel. Palmer freely admits that this may not be the most reliable source, yet many quotes and consequent suppositions are taken from this work.

Overall, though, I would recommend this book, the author's first, as it presents a fascinating picture of an almost-modern-day feudal crusader and supposed mystic. I can visualise Ungern riding the steppes on his white mare, dressed in a yellow tunic bearing his Cross of St George, leading his army to restore God and the monarchy, his banners emblazoned with images of Christ and swastikas, evoking comparisons with scenes from the sweeping landscapes of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

I am very grateful to the publishers of this book, Faber & Faber, for my encounter with Baron Ungern – but thankfully, only on paper.

Further reading suggestion: If you like this book, you might also enjoy A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris or if you really enjoy reading about megalomaniacs then we can recommend Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

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