Monday, May 16, 2011

Monarchist Profile: Baron Ungern-Sternberg Part I

Everyone knows the saying that truth is stranger than fiction but few stories illustrate this as well as that of Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. He is proof that colorful characters abound on the frontiers of civilization, be they in the west or the east. His life story reads like “Apocalypse Now” set in northeast rather than Southeast Asia. Like the fictitious Colonel Kurtz, Ungern had been a decorated warrior, legendary for his skill and courage who lost all he had been fighting for and became overwhelmed with death and destruction until (it seems) he suffered some sort of mental breakdown; going rogue, going native and going insane by most accounts. His commander in the Imperial Russian Army and compatriot in the monarchist White Russian faction, General Pyotr Wrangel, described him as, "the type that is invaluable in wartime and impossible in times of peace". Some noble hopes rode on his shoulders but a great deal of cruelty, death and destruction followed in his wake. A combination of Russian general, Mongol warlord, Asian mystic and pan-monarchist; the story of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg is certainly one of the most bizarre to come out of World War I. A misunderstood visionary, a conqueror, a liberator, a sadistic killer, or a Buddhist living god; Ungern-Sternberg has been called them all.

Despite the fact that he lived not so very long ago there is a great deal of legend surrounding the story of the man known (by his enemies) as the “Bloody Baron”. Despite the many detailed accounts of his life and career there are still conflicting reports about such basic information as when he was born, what color his hair was or what color were his eyes. He was probably born on December 29, 1885 in Graz, Austria, the first son of Theodor Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg and Freiin Sophie von Wimpffen and was named Robert Maximilian Friedrich von Ungern-Sternberg. His parents divorced before he was six years old and being of the Baltic German stock at an early age he was sent to be raised by his stepfather in Estonia, taking the name Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg. By the end of his life he would go by Ungern von Sternberg but was better known by his various nicknames such as the Mad or the Bloody Baron. According to the Baron himself he came from a long military tradition, claimed to be descended from Attila the Hun, crusaders and pirates. Many stories were later circulated claiming that the villainous baron was descended from a long line of unspeakably villainous characters in every age of history. Needless to say, such accounts should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

As a young man he set his sights on a military career and graduated from the Pavlovsk Military Academy in St Petersburg. However, the impetuous youth, eager for combat, dropped out once to join a Cossack unit when the Russo-Japanese War broke out after having been refused a transfer to Siberia because he had not completed his cadet training. Once in combat, however, he proved himself bold to the point of recklessness. He was wounded several times but it never seemed to phase him. He was often in trouble with his superiors but always managed to escape unscathed because of his value on the battlefield as well as his aristocratic connections. During this service, the Japanese greatly impressed him, particularly their warrior culture, fearless bravery and devotion to their divine emperor. While in Siberia he gained generally an early fascination with the Russian Far East, the Mongols (to whom the Russians were closest) and other native peoples and their culture. The young baron got his chance to prove his military ability when Russia entered World War I amidst a frenzy of nationalist pan-Slavism. He served in the Nerchinsk Cossacks under the command of General Wrangel and fought alongside future White Russian leader Grigori Semenov. Fighting on the Galician front and in the Carpathians against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians he soon earned a reputation as a fearsome soldier. He was extremely skilled but became most known for his fanatical temperament and do-or-die tactics.

Semenov, his superior, said the Baron was one of his most effective but also most ruthless officers. General Wrangel was impressed with his abilities but was afraid to promote him, worried about giving greater responsibilities to a man who was often so ferocious as to seem unhinged. His actions did merit him the award of the prestigious Cross of St George. He was very proud of this decoration and wore it constantly for the rest of his life. Ungern-Sternberg was also a zealous nationalist (though he was by blood a Baltic German and not a Russian Slav at all) and he was fanatically loyal to the Tsar, something which caused him to stand out all the more following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The temporary and more moderate government that took power in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Tsar Nicholas II sent Semenov to the Far East to secure the eastern frontier of Russia for their government. This was the beginning of an extremely chaotic period in Russian history and power was rapidly being lost to the Bolsheviks. Two groups formed as the situation degenerated into civil war; the communists (or reds) and the anti-communists (or whites) who included a variety of monarchists, anti-communist nationalists and moderate socialists. Everyone seemed to have an iron in the fire, even the allies who were not all so upset at the loss of the Tsar but who became very much alarmed at the prospect of the Bolsheviks making peace with Germany and Austria.

Soon the allies also dispatched troops to Russia, even to the Far East, to ensure that supplies and war materials they had sent to Tsarist Russia and later the moderate republican government did not end up in Bolshevik hands. This led to the colorful campaign of the American Expeditionary Force Siberia under General William S. Graves and the harrowing odyssey of the Czech Legion. General Semenov and his forces eventually mastered the Trans-Siberia region; aided in no small part by the effective and ruthless actions of the man many were calling the Mad Baron. However, even with Semenov in command this was no velvet glove occupation as his troops were forced to live off the land and pillaging was standard procedure for Russian forces in both the red and the white camps. Lack of unity was also a particularly serious problem among the white forces and Semenov and his command illustrate this. Semenov soon broke from the White Russian government of Admiral Kolchak and went rogue.

Negotiations were soon taking place between Semenov and the Japanese, who had landed far more troops than they were legally allowed to, for the creation of new country to be led by Semenov and propped up by the Japanese. This was no wild fantasy, but a real possibility and one that US General Graves had warned about. This also effectively broke Semenov and his men from the coalition of White Russian forces under Kolchak (Ungern would eventually break with Semenov as well). Semenov and Ungern-Sternberg raided Bolshevik supply trains and did as much damage as they could in this fierce and bitter war where mercy was unknown to both sides. In time they recruited a motley collection of soldiers as well as receiving money and guns from the Japanese. Ungern-Sternberg soon began growing apart from Semenov and in 1918 issued his own manifesto which stated his intention to overthrow the Bolsheviks and restore Grand Duke Mikhail Romanov to the Russian throne. He did not know that the Grand Duke had already been killed by the communists but this would only have reinforced his thirst for vengeance.

The final break came in 1920 when the “Mad Baron” broke from Semenov and went out on his own to the land he had earlier become infatuated with; the Mongol frontier. The leader of this column certainly cut an odd figure. Those who knew the Baron described him as fair, skinny, rather frail looking with a distinctly unmilitary bearing. He had a small head and uneven eyes and a rather high-pitched voice. Yet he had a boundless energy in his skeletal frame and endurance and iron constitution that surprised many. He was shy, witty, brutal and increasingly religious. Although a fearsome reputation preceded him, he did have a very simple sort of moral clarity. The communist revolutionaries were not just political enemies, by the enemy of God, in fact the enemies of the very concept of the divine in any form, a plague upon the soul as well as the body of mankind. As a result, he had no reservations about wiping them out without mercy. His style of warfare had a very “Old Testament” feel to it. Undoubtedly, he was a hard man, both before the revolution and civil war and certainly after, and he was not alone in that. Such surroundings tended to make many people quite merciless. However, he also had a clear sense of a greater right and wrong and to his mind, when dealing with Bolshevik revolutionaries, atheists and such political and spiritual sinners, the only righteous thing to do was to annihilate them without mercy. He was also extremely taken by his new surroundings and loved the bleak, Mongol steppes.

Ungern-Sternberg went native, as the saying goes, and poured over the history of the Mongols, their tactics and their former glory. He was impressed by their awesome accomplishments and even took up a version of their religion according to some sources. The religious beliefs of the Baron have been much speculated about. Most usually describe it as a mix and match assortment of Buddhism and his own personal brand of mysticism. However, he was born a Protestant Christian (Lutheran) and even at the end of his life never claimed to be anything else. He was certainly far from the mainstream and he didn’t have much time for religious arguments. Having a religion was the important thing to him and the rest were disputes over names and titles as far as he was concerned. He paid due respect to the Buddhist lamas in Mongolia, consulted local shamans and fortune-tellers and had great respect for the Confucian vision of an ordered, hierarchical society. He wore a huge number of religious charms, medals and amulets on a yellow cord underneath his uniform. He accepted eastern viewpoints on fate, karma and even somewhat on reincarnation though this certainly did not make him peaceful or passive. The full depths of his spiritual side could probably only be understood by the Baron himself.

Although some claimed he never showed any interest in women, there is evidence that he also married during this period, though he never settled down for a family life. On July 30, 1919 he married Zsi Helene Pavlovna, a 19-year-old girl from Peking but the two would not spend a great deal of time together. Even before the Baron embarked on this new chapter in his life he had a fearsome reputation among his Russian comrades that none could match with some even then suggesting that he suffered some sort of mental or nervous breakdown. Some judged that all of the death and destruction he had witnessed during the World War and the Russian Civil War, along with the power he held and the lives he himself had taken finally caused him to snap. Others hinted that the saber wound he received across his head did something to his mind. Tales are told of his troops assaulting citizens, hanging those they considered guilty of some offense, beheading others, disemboweling some and a whole list of other tortures. Those who felt his wrath left onlookers stunned and claiming it was impossible to tell by looking that the body of the victim before them could have once been human. His own physician described him as bloodthirsty and mentally unhinged. However, it is important to keep in mind when considering the worst and most lurid tales of the Mad Baron; the majority of these come from Soviet sources who were the sworn enemies of the fanatically monarchist Baron and it is highly likely that they embellished them or encouraged witnesses to stretch the truth as much as possible to make a villain and an imperialist bogey man out of Ungern-Sternberg. That being said, it was a very brutal time and place as has been established. In any case, even for those who marveled at the actions of the ‘bad boy’ of the Russian Civil War, the most bizarre period in the life of Ungern-Sternberg was only just beginning.

Concluded in Part II


  1. An epic man with an epic story. It is too bad that Hollywood or something of the sorts can't romanticize his story.

  2. He's been in some movies but none by Hollywood and certainly none that portrayed him as anything but a villain.

  3. Most usually describe it as a mix and match assortment of Buddhism and his own personal brand of mysticism. However, he was born a Protestant Christian (Lutheran) and even at the end of his life never claimed to be anything else.

    Lutherans like Anglicans can when not so religious hardly be distinguished from secularists (except for not being anticlerical and for enjoying a few Church holidays), but when religious, by now, very often be described as mix and match assortments of own personal brands of mysticism (not always excluding Buddhism and Hinduism).

    My own version led me to Catholicism.


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