“He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.”
– General Corman on Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now.
Back in the bad old days of Imperial Europe, before the two Great Wars of the 20th century finally reined in the long history of bloody conquest plaguing the continent, violent psychopaths did not become serial killers. They ruled nations. By the time the 1900’s rolled around, Europe’s aristocracy were the scions of a dozen centuries’ worth of treachery and inbreeding: sociopaths, perverts and lunatics all. Perhaps no other Empire had a crazier nobility than the Russians, and the Russians produced no more demented an individual than Baron Ungern von Sternberg, a fanatic nationalist who came to believe that he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. He pursued a bloody adventure of rampant lunacy through Siberia and the Asian Steppes, torturing, plundering and exterminating Jews along the way. He even managed (briefly) to conquer Mongolia. This is the story of a man so unhinged he was convinced that by shooting people, he was doing them a good turn.
BARON UNGERN VON STERNBERG
Country of Rule: Mongolia
From: March 13, 1921 – August 21, 1921 (just 161 days)
Demise: Sentenced to death by firing squad on September 15, 1921 (35 years old).
Death Toll: No figures are available, but probably several thousand at least.
Physical Defects: Von Sternberg’s brain had supposedly atrophied as a result of being hacked in the head with a sabre, which possibly explains his increasingly psychopathic behaviour later on in life. Not that he was operating comfortably within the boundaries of sanity before that.
Bio: It would appear that the young Baron was always something of a nutter. Not that this in itself was unusual in the European aristocracy of the early 20th Century. The nobility of the entire continent was stocked full of inbreeds, extremists, racial supremacists, perverts, killers and crazoids of every description. But there was something rather special about Von Sternberg’s brand of lunacy. Born into a minor Baltic-German family of the Russian aristocracy, Von Sternberg went on to get expelled from every educational gymnasium and academy he attended during his formative years. Apparently because he was a violent little bugger with a penchant for getting mixed up in duels. According to Russian historian Dmitry Pershin, who was later to chronicle the “Bloody Baron’s” misadventures in Mongolia, Von Sternberg had a “psychotic abnormality” which caused him to fly into spectacular rages at the “least provocation”. His inability to cope with basic education made Von Sternberg disdainful of “thinking” – which he would always associate in his mind with “cowardice”. He probably would have gotten on quite well with Dick Cheney then.
The failed Russian Revolution of 1905 was to make a deep impression on the young Baron’s paranoid world view. He witnessed Estonian peasants storm his family’s estate, smashing windows and setting buildings alight. To Ungern, the rioting peasants were indistinguishable from livestock. It was inconceivable to him that these downtrodden and brutalised people could have had any genuine grievance. He described them as: “rough, untutored, wild and constantly angry, hating everybody and everything without understanding why.” In a line of anti-reasoning that is strikingly similar to the thought processes of Adolf Hitler, Von Sternberg concluded that the peasantry had been misled by the secretive plots of Jews, who would bring “famine, destruction, the death of culture, of glory, of honour and of spirit” to the nation of Russia. In later years, Von Sternberg would carry out his own mini-program of genocide against Jews, predating the Nazis by some 20 years.
And like Hitler, Von Sternberg was very much a case of what historical philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin described as “borderlands syndrome” – in which a non native citizen born and raised on the fringes of an Empire becomes afflicted with extreme, zealous nationalism. Von Sternberg became characterised by his fanatic devotion to Imperial Russia. He possessed a rabid hatred of all enemies of the state, by his warped conception: communists, Jews and foreign agitators.
Von Sternberg wasn’t much suited for life at court, but a good way for a budding young sociopath to direct his energies in the waning days of the Russian Empire was to join the military. Von Sternberg used his aristocratic connections to land himself the position of junior officer. His early career was largely spent out on the desolate Asian Steppes, among military garrisons stationed in the far fringes of the Empire. It was a harsh and unforgiving lifestyle. The men would spend their days out in the wilderness, largely forgotten, with nothing to do but gallop about on horseback, get slaughtered on cheap vodka, gamble away their wages and occasionally beat the snot out of each other. Even among the miscreants and reprobates that constituted much of the Russian Army – hardly a gaggle of girl scouts – Von Sternberg earned a reputation as a violent trouble maker.
When the storm of World War I descended over Europe, Von Sternberg found himself within his natural element. He was perfectly at home amid the wholesale carnage. Von Sternberg fought in East Prussia, the Carpathians and along the Turkish / Russian front. In each theatre of war, he became infamous for his unthinking recklessness and savage cruelty. He was wounded on several occasions, and received medals for his bravery. Russian general Petr Vrangel described Von Sternberg as follows:
“War was his natural element. He was not an officer in the elementary sense, he knew nothing of system, turned up his nose at discipline, and was ignorant of the rudiments of decency and decorum…. He was dirty and dressed untidily, slept on the floor with his Cossacks and messed with them. When he was promoted to a civilized environment, his lack of outward refinement made him conspicuous.”
By 1917, revolution had swept Russia, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne. Imperial Russia – the construct from which lunatic aristocrats like Von Sternberg had emerged – was finished. The provisional government under Alexander Karensky – who had attempted to keep Russia in the war – collapsed just months afterwards. The Bolsheviks seized control, and immediately signed an armistice with Germany. Russia’s participation in the war was over.
Not only was Von Sternberg utterly hostile to the Bolsheviks – yet another Jewish conspiracy to bring down the glory of mother Russia so far as he was concerned – but he had no interest in laying down his arms. The life of a warrior was really the only kind he was suited for. Galloping about on the front, charging enemy formations, blowing away Turks and lopping off heads with his sabre, was far too entertaining an occupation to willingly leave behind.
Von Sternberg made his way back to Siberia, where he became affiliated with the White Army – a loose association of former Tsarist army officers. Theoretically, they were jointly opposed to the “Red” communist government of the Bolsheviks, but in practise, there was little genuine unity. The Baron served under the notorious Grigory Semonov, a heinous bandit even by the standards of other White Army generals, all renowned for their ruthlessness. Semonov was appointed governor of the remote Baikal region in Siberia. In effect, he became little more than a Bandit King, subsiding by having his rag-tag band of soldiers stick up trains and pillage the lands of his subjects. He earned the enmity of the other White Army generals by cutting a treasonous deal with the Japanese, who backed him with weapons and money, hoping to establish their own puppet state in Siberia.
While the White Army unsuccessfully attempted to wrest control of Russia back from the Bolsheviks, Semonov and his men ran riot out in the nether regions of the old Empire. Cut off from the rest of the country, Siberia became a sinister twilight land of banditry and death. No longer operating under any constraint of law, men such as Von Sternberg went native, giving free rein to their lust for wholesale savagery.
Von Sternberg was promoted to the rank of Major-General and freely indulged in his favourite past time. He would frequent taverns and quaff vodka until he was drunk enough to see double. He would then take out his pistol and begin taking pot shots at the other patrons, seeing how many he could hit in his inebriated state. To his great amusement, he found that he was able to maintain a constant accuracy rate of 50%. Drinkers across Siberia learned that it was best to clear out fast when Von Sternberg came busting through the tavern doors, drunkenly brandishing a pistol.
Brutal, drunken killers were hardly unusual under Semonov’s reign of terror in Siberia, but what really set Von Sternberg apart were his deranged, messianic beliefs. During his long tenure out in the Asian Steppes, Von Sternberg had come into frequent contact with Mongolian mystics, practising a kind of debased Buddhism, incorporating local superstitions and fragments of old tribal creeds. According to these beliefs, a pantheon of vengeful and destructive Gods must be constantly appeased through bloody sacrifice. It was a good match for the Baron’s sadistic, paranoid worldview. And the Buddhist notion of reincarnation inspired him to a kind of depraved revelation. He became convinced that by murdering people was doing them a favour. Weak enough to be killed by the Baron in this life, they would come back stronger in the next.
A local myth had been circulating through the Steppes about the arrival of a “White God”, who would deliver the Mongols from their Chinese overlords. Von Sternberg came to believe that this was a role he was destined to play. He would overthrow the Bolsheviks and restore Imperial Russia. He would create a powerful Central Asian Kingdom, uniting the Mongols, Uighurs and Tibetans under a single banner. He would purge the world of the plague of Jews.
Von Sternberg formed the “Order of Military Buddhists”, consisting of himself and his men. They swore celibacy (although the ban apparently did not extend to necrophilia) and consumed massive amounts of alcohol, hashish and opium. They would get loaded on booze and drugs and ride around the countryside, looting and killing. The Baron had combined his pre-existing zeal for Russian Imperialism and his paranoid conspiracy theories about Jewish plots with a kind of violent, messianic Buddhism. The result was a bizarre politico-religious creed that exulted in insanity, mayhem and bloodshed of every description.
Semonov appointed Von Sternberg as governor of the vast, remote region of Dauria, in Russia’s south-east. By 1920, however, Semonov was having a hard time fending off the rapidly encroaching Red Army guerillas, so Von Sternberg struck out by himself, severing connections with Semonov to become an independent warlord. Like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Von Sternberg had gone well beyond the reach of civilisation, beyond the realms of sanity, and into the heart of darkness. The “Mad Baron” decided the time was nigh to act on his messianic impulses. He took his troops and crossed the border into Chinese occupied Mongolia.
Siberia was a demented enough region in the dark years following the Russian Revolution, but Mongolia had a special, sinister ambience all of its own. The capital of Urga (now Ulan Baatar) was filthy, impoverished and dangerous. Dead bodies were simply cast out onto the street, to be fastened upon by the packs of wild dogs that ravaged through town. Pedestrians would arm themselves with clubs wrapped in barbed wire, in order to fend off the attacks of the starving canines. An uprising against Chinese rule in 1911 had installed Boghd Khan – supposedly the reincarnation of a Tibetan holy man – as Emperor of Mongolia, but the Chinese deposed him again just 2 years later. Ostensibly, Von Sternberg aimed to overthrow the Chinese occupation and reinstall Boghd Khan on the throne.
The only problem was, Von Sternberg’s fighting force didn’t really stack up to much. It was just a bunch of rag tag followers, consisting of various Russian and Mongolian nut jobs, bandits and soldiers of fortune. All told about 3,000 men, up against the Urgan Chinese garrison of 10,000. Von Sternberg’s initial assault on the city was met with fierce resistance, and his men, quickly outnumbered, were forced to beat a hasty retreat. It was a typically reckless display of bravado from Von Sternberg. After that, he would get cleverer. He decided to wage a campaign of psychological warfare, aimed at softening up the Chinese garrison in preparation for another assault.
One morning, in broad daylight, Von Sternberg decided to just brazenly ride into town and see what would happen. Urga was supposed to under a state of martial law in the face of the enemy siege, but Von Sternberg somehow managed to parade about town unmolested, dressed in full Mongolian military regalia. As he was departing, he spotted a Chinese sentry asleep at his post. Von Sternberg promptly began to beat the guard about the head with his bamboo riding cane, while admonishing him for neglecting his duty. By the time the sentry had recovered his wits sufficiently to raise the alarm, Von Sternberg had already ridden off. Word of the outrageous stunt spread through Urga like wildfire, and the superstitious Chinese soldiers concluded that the Baron possessed supernatural powers.
Von Sternberg was fascinated by stories of the military prowess of the Mongol hordes that swept throughout the Eurasian continent during the 13th century. He was so taken with their exploits that he began to declare himself the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. One trick he had learned from studying Mongolian military tactics was to create the illusion of numerical superiority. He instructed his men to construct hundreds of camp fires on the slope of the nearby mountainside, creating the impression of a vast invasion force. In Urga, it was whispered that the Baron was offering sacrifices to the spirit of the mountain, who would soon wreak vengeance upon the Chinese invaders.
Finally, a handful of Von Sternberg’s men conducted a daring commando raid, “kidnapping” the Boghd Khan, who was under Chinese house arrest at the time. In fact, the kidnap had already been pre-arranged with the deposed Mongolian Emperor. But to the minds of the soldiers in the Chinese garrison, it offered conclusive proof of the Baron’s “magic powers”. By now, the Chinese troops were thoroughly rattled. When Von Sternberg’s forces staged another attack, most of the garrison was put to flight, the rest slaughtered.
With Urga secured, Von Sternberg and his men indulged themselves in a 3 day orgy of rape, pillage and murder. Because of the vows of celibacy they had taken (not always strictly observed) his men would butcher women and then practise necrophilia on their dead bodies. Merchant traders and suspected Bolsheviks were freely murdered. But Von Sternberg’s most savage ire was reserved for Urga’s Jewish population. Every Jew in the city was rounded up and executed in a brief, bloody pogrom.
The Boghd Khan was officially reinstalled as Mongolia’s “Emperor”. But Von Sternberg remained in command of the troops, which effectively made him the military dictator. The Khan’s position was strictly ceremonial in nature, while Von Sternberg became the real boss of the country. He raced about town in a newly acquired fiat motor car, issuing commands and ordering further executions. The Baron’s methods of maintaining discipline were extreme beyond all reason. He would have people tied to trees and then set on fire. Others were sent naked out into the middle of frozen rivers and lakes, to die of exposure, if they were not eaten by the wolves first. Others would simply be made to stand at the end of a street; a rider would then gallop past and smash them in the face with a block of wood. There didn’t necessarily have to be any kind of reason to carry out a killing. Von Sternberg was firmly convinced that he was doing spiritual work, purging the world of the weak and feeble, who would later be reincarnated in a state of greater glory. The streets of Urga flowed with blood.
As savage as Von Sternberg’s regime might have been, it was fated only to be a brief one. He couldn’t possibly hope to control all of Mongolia with such a small number of troops. A series of skirmishes with the Red Army, intent on ridding the world once and for all of the last vestiges of White Russia, severely depleted his forces. Some of his men, ultimately repelled by the Baron’s ever more sadistic measures, began to desert him. While out patrolling in the wilderness, Von Sternberg ran into a contingent of Red Army troops. Recognising that the game would soon be up, it appears that his men simply decided to mutiny. They seized the Baron and handed him over to the Bolsheviks. He was locked in a cage, placed on a train and dispatched back to Russia to stand trial. During a five-hour hearing, Von Sternberg relished the chance to spout his extremist views in public. When asked if he had beaten people very often, the unrepentant Baron replied – “not often enough”.
The Bolsheviks sentenced Von Sternberg to death, and he was executed by firing squad that very evening.
Despot Rating: There’s really no getting away from it, Baron Ungern von Sternberg was a raving, frothing at the mouth, howling at the moon psychopath. In many respects, Von Sternberg’s deranged combination of extreme nationalism, rabid anti-Semitism and delusional messianic fervour paints him as a sort of proto-Hitler. In fact, Von Sternberg was probably even a madder dog than Hitler turned out to be. However warped it might have been, you can discern some sort of method in Hitler’s madness. But Von Sternberg? As the exchange between Colonel Kurtz and Captain Willard goes in Apocalypse Now:
“Are my methods unsound?
I don’t see any method at all, sir.”
Fortunately for pretty much everybody concerned, however, Von Sternberg was not nearly successful enough to carry on his unique brand of insane savagery over any extended period of time. Although he was undoubtedly a cruel and psychotic lunatic, he just wasn’t around long enough to rack up the genocidal kill score of history’s most infamous monsters.
* 4 Hitler moustaches / 5 for Baron Ungern von Sternberg.