Ever since European men have ventured into parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas that they weren’t invited to, a certain trope has appeared in our collective memory that rears its head again and again in our fiction. A white man goes into the wilderness where he is unaccustomed, slowly goes mad and embraces the vicious, primal sides of his nature until he reaches his justified end. This usually involves the things we typically associate with evil men losing their minds. Murders, rapes, delusions and long monologues brought on by jungle related illnesses. The most famous example of this trope is Colonel Kurtz of Francis Ford Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now. Kurtz, a special forces officer, goes insane fighting the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War and builds his own private army/murder cult deep in the Cambodian jungle. This move is a re-make of that book you probably had to read in high school called Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The plot’s basically the same, except the book version Kurtz is an ivory trader that lost his mind in King Leopold’s Congo. These examples might be the most famous, but there are tons of these stories in modern culture. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God presents similar themes of wilderness and madness, except Lester Ballard is necrophiliac redneck haunting the hills of Appalachia. The film Valhalla Rising tells a similar story, where a bunch of medieval Viking crusaders get lost and eventually murdered by native peoples of Greenland. Werner Herzog literally made two different films about this exact scenario. Aguirre: The Wrath of God involving a bunch of conquistadors on the Amazon River, and Fitzcarraldo, where a rubber salesman tries to pull a boat up a mountain…And build and opera house or something. Almost countless TV shows from Ren & Stimpy to Metalocalypse have dedicated episodes to referencing these books and films.
There’s ample historical precedence for this. Adam Hochschild’s history of the Belgian Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost mentions two Belgian officials who, through their love of torture and murder, could serve as templates for Kurtz and the other fictional creatures he bred. Even president Theordore Roosevelt had his own encounter with madness and death in the jungle after his presidential life ended. Check out Candice Millard’s River of Doubt for all the real-life nonsense of that story. The prevalence of this type of tale, told over and over again, has a weird staying power. Do we like the exoticism of rarely explored lands? The idea of proud men being brought low by their own greed and the elements? Maybe we just like watching imperialist swine get their asses kicked? Whatever the appeal, these stories have been repeated over and over again. Our greatest filmmakers have given their own spin on this tale, our historians craft bestsellers from the lives of these men that imperialism chewed up and spit out. This is one of those stories. It’s the story of a man who tried to restore the era of Genghis Khan in the age of the Romanovs. Who in the age of revolution, gave his life for the idea of monarchy. He tortured and killed both his own men and his enemies. He was a Russian who made war on Chinese, Japanese and Russian alike, just like the Khans of old. His name was Baron Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, and his story is told in James Palmer’s The Bloody White Baron.
Any way you slice it, the child who became Baron Ungern was a creepy little shit. Born to Austrian nobility with ancestral land in Estonia, then territory of the Russian Empire, he was a scion of a military family and from the start seemed destined for a life of violence. He bullied his classmates, terrified their parents, and strangled small animals. He showed little aptitude for any academic subjects beyond horseback riding and fighting. His aristocratic upbringing made him proud. He believed himself naturally superior to the Estonian peasants his family lorded over. Not just that, he was a straight up monarchist that believed those of noble blood like himself were needed to keep the common man in line.
Baron Ungern’s short life is pretty much a straight shot. From a disturbing childhood, the young, minor aristocrat is sent to a variety of military schools with predictably violent, yet unimpressive results. He goes to war many times in his life, against the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War, against the Central Powers in World War I, and finally against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Most of his military posts are away from the grandest battles of these wars. He’ll see no service at Port Arthur or Tannenburg. His military career is to be spent on the fringes of Russia’s vast Eastern holdings. Mongolia, Northern China and Siberia. It’s here that Ungern becomes something vastly more terrible than even his troubled early life would lead us to believe. He immerses himself in the culture of the steppe, the history of Mongolia, the mysticism of some of the more obscure sects of Buddhism. He blends European military imperialism with the aesthetic of an ancient Mongolian warrior to become something of a legend among those he faced and those he served with.
The book is largely concerned with the destruction this man reaps. Serving first with Cossack cavalry troops and then an ever-dwindling number of ethnic Siberians, Mongolian mercenaries and exiled Russian monarchists, Ungern-Sternberg battles against the forces he deems threaten the traditional social order of the Russian Empire. His battle ends with him starving, dressed in furs, abandoned by his men and at the mercy of the Soviet Red Army. He dreamed of rebuilding the hordes of Genghis Khan and taking Moscow back from the Soviets. It doesn’t end well.
Ungern’s battles throughout the eastern fringes of the Russian Empire take all the turns you would expect. He commits atrocities, murders thousands in war and allies with every petty warlord and gangster he believes will help him crush his enemies. Its action packed and the book’s deep dive into the culture of Mongolia is a fascinating look at an often ignored part of the world. It’s a book of almost uncountable life and death struggles between small groups of men in a place where the environment is as hostile as any enemy combatant. For all the drama and violence this book contains, it’s astonishing that the history of this part of the world and this one lunatic in particular isn’t more well known. His craziness is more than a match for any Rasputin or Himmler you could line him up against. I suppose it’s hard for Ungern to be a historical boogeyman with the specter of Hitler and Mussolini looming over the horizon soon to overshadow him and his bloody deeds.
Quote of the Story:
“There is very little to like about Ungern himself. He was an appalling human being in almost every way; virtually his only admirable characteristic was his fierce physical bravery, and perhaps parts of his fascination with the East. There seemed to be very few aspects of life that could please him; his pleasures were violent and he lived in a world increasingly – and rightfully – hostile to the values he believed on.” –James Palmer
Keep or Donate?:
A lot of the stories of European men going nuts in the wildernesses have become classics. Heart of Darkness is still taught in schools, Apocalypse Now and Herzog’s movies are almost infinitely re-watchable. This book, as fascinating as its subject is, isn’t one of those classics. Perfectly entertaining, but not something you’ll turn to again once you finish it. Better to donate or pass it on to a friend so they too can learn the quite frankly insane story, of the Bloody White Baron.