Friday, May 24, 2013

Did Japan Read the Baron's Playbook?

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg (our blog mascot here) may have been a bit on the “unusual” side but he had a grand vision and was nothing if not ambitious. We have talked in the past about his aspirations and his, albeit short-lived, efforts to bring his vision to reality. It says something that, despite being only very briefly on the scene in Outer Mongolia, the “Mad Baron” became something of a legendary figure. For years later he was viewed with a sort of awe, a mixture of both fear and admiration. He was a bogey man to the Bolsheviks and he still pops up from time to time in works of fiction, from novels to comic books to video games and movies. Many legends grew up around him including, as is nothing new or uncommon, the legend that he was not really killed by the Soviets and would return someday to resume his holy war against the revolutionary enemies of tradition and monarchy. A legend though, is of course a fanciful tale, not reality. However, one could be forgiven for thinking that there may have been something to the basic premise considering the extent to which the “cause” of the bizarre baron was taken up by the forces of the Empire of Japan during and prior to the Second World War. How was that? Let us see by first having a little refresher on what the plan of the baron was.

Ungern-Sternberg was, like many people, fascinated and impressed by the glorious history of the great Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. He learned the language (not perfectly but sufficiently), adopted Mongolian dress and many customs and pledged his support and obedience to the theocrat/monarch of the country the Bogd Khan (roughly “Holy King” or emperor, aka Bogd Gegeen or “Holy Shining One”. He wanted to see the Eurasian empire of Genghis Khan brought back to life in some form or another, at least as the vehicle for his goal of a pan-monarchist crusade against the forces of the revolution that had decimated his beloved Russian Empire. So, step one was to drive the republicans out of Mongolia, restore the Holy Khan to his throne and consolidate the area as a bastion of traditional authority. In that first step he was entirely successful, driving out the forces of the Republic of China, liberating the Holy Khan and then beginning at least to build his multi-national counter-revolutionary army of White Russians, Mongols, Tibetans, Manchus, Japanese and other peoples of the region.

The next step in his original plan was to revive the Great Qing Empire and restore the last Manchu Emperor to his throne in China. This, obviously, did not happen but it was crucial if he was ever going to hope to have the manpower necessary to take on the conscripted hordes of the Soviet Red Army. He tried to make contact with the Xuantong Emperor (Henry Pu-Yi to most westerners) though it is unclear if he ever actually did or not. His old partner, General Semyonov certainly did though and was actually employed by the last Emperor for a time. Had that worked out, the next step would have been to arrange an alliance with the Empire of Japan, and he sent agents to try to make contact with the Japanese for that purpose but, again, it is unknown if any ever even reached anyone in authority. We do know that the Baron had among his army a number of Japanese troops, many or most of whom were detailed to handle the artillery as Japan was one of the few countries in the region that had developed sufficiently to master things like modern artillery, automatic weapons and so on. When all that was done, which it unfortunately was not, the Baron then planned to launch a massive offensive against the Soviet Union drawing on peoples from Japan, Korea, Manchuria, China, Tibet, Mongolia and the Russian Far East. He hoped to sweep away the Bolshevik revolutionaries, restore the Romanov monarchy and then build a coalition across the area of the former Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan into a Eurasian “empire” that would be a bulwark of traditionalism as well as a base from which to strike out and eradicate the forces of revolution everywhere.

It sounds glorious but that is also obviously quite a tall order to fill and such a plan by itself would probably be enough for some people to have questioned the sanity of Ungern-Sternberg. However, it is remarkable how similar at least some of the plans made by the Empire of Japan were not long after the “Mad Baron” met his tragic end. There are striking similarities between what the Baron dreamed of doing and what the political and military strategists of Imperial Japan planned for their own agenda. It was not everyone of course but was more in keeping with the agenda of the “army faction” which advocated focus on northeast Asia as opposed to the “navy faction” which advocated a focus on southeast Asia. One supportive group stands out in particular; the famous Black Dragon Society founded by Uchida Ryohei in 1901. Members of the society sought to bring Japan, Manchuria and Mongolia together in combined opposition to the expansion of the Soviet Union. One member, for instance, was Kawashima Naniwa who arranged the marriage of his adopted daughter, Kawashima Yoshiko, a princess of the Qing Dynasty, to a Mongolian prince in an effort to establish a royal dynastic alliance across northeast Asia. That did not completely work out but it was only one effort among many. A simple look at the basic history shows just how closely the actions of Japan and the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in particular, mirrored the goals of the “Mad Baron”.

Where the Baron hoped to restore the Manchu Emperor, the Japanese actually made it a reality. The creation of the Empire of Manchukuo, under the sponsorship of Japan, is one of those rarest of cases in history in which a fallen monarch is successfully restored to his ancestral throne and, people tend to forget, Manchukuo persisted for thirteen years. As far as getting China proper on side, Emperor “Henry” (officially Kang Te in Manchukuo) considered his restoration in Manchuria only a step in the ultimate revival of the Great Qing Empire completely. The Japanese were a little more realistic about the difficulties of that but were still active in supporting a change in government for the Republic of China which did come about in the person of Wang Jingwei whose regime was the only Chinese government to actually recognize the Qing monarch as Emperor of Manchukuo. This was a major step considering how violently anti-Qing dynasty Wang Jingwei had been in his youth. By the time he had made peace with Japan he had become extremely anti-communist and could have been counted on to be supportive of any efforts against the Soviet Union though, as we know, the authority of his government reached only those areas of northeast China held by the Imperial Japanese Army.

As for the Mongolian connection, since the Baron had chased out the Chinese in 1921 the Soviet Union had come to totally dominate Outer Mongolia in one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in history few people have heard of. Direct involvement in Outer Mongolia by Japan was out of the question in the short-term as the country had effectively become the “sixteenth” Soviet republic. However, Inner Mongolia was within reach and Japan was quick to cultivate alliances with traditional leaders there. The most prominent was Prince Demchukdongrub, a cousin of the Manchu emperor, longtime Qing loyalist and a pan-Mongol nationalist that the Japanese Kwantung Army was quick to reach out to. With backing from Japan the Prince and his family established the autonomous monarchy of Mengjiang with the hope of eventually reunited Inner and Outer Mongolia into a revived country with Prince Demchukdongrub and his relatives as the new Royal Family of Mongolia. In their support of the Prince the Japanese issued a proclamation which would have sounded very familiar to any follower of Ungern-Sternberg saying that the Prince would, “inherit the great spirit of Genghis Khan and retake the territories that belong to Mongolia, completing the grand task of reviving the prosperity of the nation”. The Baron could have said the same thing in his own day.

Finally, there is the case of Russia. The Baron hoped to ride into Siberia at the head of a White Russian, pan-Asian monarchist army and wipe out the red menace. What about Japan? After being stung in a few border clashes with Soviet forces the Japanese signed a neutrality pact with the USSR (part of the shift as Tokyo officially embraced the policies of the “navy faction” in turning toward southeast Asia) which Japan scrupulously observed. Even when her Axis partners invaded the Soviet Union, Japan took no action and honored the agreement until the Soviets, a in a move which earned them the furious hatred of Japanese people ever since, launched a sudden invasion of Manchuria after the United States had already dropped the atomic bomb and the defeat of Japan was imminent. However, the Japanese certainly had plans for other possible courses of action and the army in particular had a long history of working with White Russian monarchist factions in opposition to the Soviet Union. One of these was the revival of the Provisional Priamurye Government which the Japanese had supported during the Russian Civil War in 1921 (the same year the Baron rode into Mongolia). Under Japanese protection and with their financial support the regime had declared for the restoration of the Romanov monarchy under Grand Duke Nicholas (former Russian army commander in World War I).

Someone else who had long been supported by Japan was General Grigory Semyonov, the former comrade-in-arms of Ungern-Sternberg. After some trouble in the USA he had returned to Manchuria (then Manchukuo) where the Japanese paid him a pension and he continued to be a leader in the White Russian exile community which was quite large in Manchuria. The record leaves little doubt that if war had come between Japan and the USSR (at least earlier than it did, before Japan was subject to nuclear attack) there was a friendly force in reserve ready to establish a pro-monarchy government to call for counter-revolution against the Soviets just as the Baron himself had once hoped for. Taken all together, the similarities are striking and might make some wonder if someone in Tokyo had not found some lost record of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg and decided it all looked like a pretty good idea. What might have been we can never know for sure. However, what we can know for sure is that what did ultimately happen; the victory and expansion of communism across Mongolia, China, North Korea and beyond, was not for the best and is still causing misery, unrest and international fear for people today.


  1. How would he restore the Romanovs? Didn't the Communists kill them all?

    1. They killed all of the immediate family and as many of the rest as they could get their hands on but the Romanovs (at least back then) were a big family and they did not get every last one. However, the man the Baron spoke of as being the rightful Tsar he was fighting for was the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich who actually had been killed by the communists by that time but the Baron didn't know it. However, as mentioned above, there were other members of the family in exile who could have been restored to the throne, such as Grand Duke Nicholas who was the oldest member of the family though it was Grand Duke Cyril who actually claimed leadership of the Romanov legacy in exile.

  2. Indeed, and by the grace of God, the Romanovs are alive and well to this very day - waiting in the wings for the Russian people and their "elected" (cough) leaders to finally come to their senses.

  3. May the day come when not only the Romanovs have been restored, but ALL MONARCHIES, that have been done away with...

    Blessed Be!! ;)

  4. Heart Warming and Beautiful Connection :D


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