Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Bloody White Baron

Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg's name was as bizarre and tortuous as his life story. James Palmer retells the story of the "Mad Baron" Ungern-Sternberg, whose military career culminated in 1921 with a brief period of tyrannical rule over Khuree (Ulaanbaatar) and the surrounding countryside, in a recently published book called "The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia."

The Mad Baron is one of those historical personalities that at first blush makes you think you have encountered a piece of fiction. Surely it can't be true? I would have heard about this before. It is so bizarre. At least, that is how I reacted the first time I heard about the Mad Baron a few years ago. Once the story sunk in, though, it seemed less improbable relative to the many twists and turns in Mongolia's history, especially during the 20th century. And yet, it's still a pretty fantastical story.

James Palmer goes to great lengths to chronicle the Baron's early career and the events leading up to his invasion of Mongolia in 1919. The Baron truly lived up to his many nicknames which implied an insane and/or sadistic personality, and the book is full of rather gruesome tales of Ungern-Sternberg and his officers dispatching of people in very inhumane ways. The stories are the type that are difficult to read and comprehend but also difficult to turn away from. The atrocities he and his men committed were so extreme that they almost take on a sense of fictional violence like in a horror film. Freddy Kruger and Jason are fictional characters with no "based on a true story" attached to them, though, so these stories amplify the lore and legend of Ungern-Sternberg being more (less?) than human, possibly the personification of evil.

The book is an interesting read, and Palmer does a good job of telling the story. His descriptions of Mongolia at times tack towards inaccurate and superficial, but the Baron is the star of this story, so these minor issues are easy to overlook. It's also not clear at times what the sources of information in the narrative are. Citations often seem randomly distributed. He draws upon several primary sources from archives, but he also refers to "Beast, Men, and Gods" by Ferdinand Ossendowski often in the narrative as a secondary source. As a non-expert on the issue, it is not possible for me to assess whether this is a problem for the validity of the story as Palmer has written it. However, I was left at many points in the book in which a "fact" about the Baron was presented without a citation wondering: "How could he possibly know that without a supporting document or eyewitness account?" I don't usually like it when people nitpick details like that, especially for a non-academic book meant for a popular audience, but in this case, since there are not many other accounts of Ungern-Sternberg's life, this book is likely to be used in the future to educate many people about this story in history. It would be nice to know for sure if the "facts" can be accounted for. Nevertheless, it is worth a read if one has an interest in this truly bizarre figure in Mongolia's history.

The book is available in the ACMS library.

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