Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Is History and What Is Myth?

It was with utter stupefaction that I read James Palmer's The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia.

If you happen to be a fan of world history at the end of The Great War;

if you are keen for details charting the tensions between Russia, China, Japan, an assortment of Eastern peoples, and their various beliefs, customs, and religions;

and if you are intrigued (and mortified) by stories of "obstinate and violent" child flunkies who become delusional, sadistic military leaders, why ... you simply cannot ask for more.

Palmer writes in his introduction,
This book tells the story of Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, the last khan of Mongolia, who in one short year rose from being a Russian nobleman to incarnate God of War and returned Khan. In Mongolia he was lauded as a hero, feared as a demon and, briefly, worshiped as a God ...

Like all good conquerors, he was rumored to have left hidden treasure behind him, plundered from monasteries and buried on the steppe ... Like his Baltic forefathers, he was a lost crusader, a bloody-handed pillager driven by both an intense religious fanaticism and devotion to the joy of slaughter ...

I began [writing The Bloody White Baron] in a greater spirit of scepticism than when I finished it; too many of the oddest stories turned out to be confirmed by reliable witnesses ...

Who would have thought, after all, that Ungern really did keep wolves in his house? Or marry a Chinese princess? Or pause on a reconnaissance mission, in the middle of a hostile city, to chastise an enemy soldier for being asleep on duty?

There is very little to like about Ungern himself. He was an appalling human being in almost every way ...
And this, of course, makes for fascinating reading.

Bonus tip:

Check out Rhys Hughes' book, A New Universal History of Infamy, which provides fictionalized accounts of real scoundrels, starting with Baron Ungern-Sternberg.

No comments: