Sunday, February 22, 2009

Who Said 'History Is Boring'?

From a book review:

James Palmer’s “Bloody White Baron,” his life of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, is the story of “a loser — albeit an upper-class one” — who turned himself into a visionary psychopath in the Russian far east...Mongolia is the focus, at a time when it was nominally free of Chinese rule after the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and ushered in a failing republic...Into this terrible shifting world of alliance and double-cross came Baron Ungern, a czarist Buddhist anti-Semite with messianic objectives.

...Prisoners were packed into waterless cars and left to die in sidings. The Whites simply ran amok. Pirates in command of these dreadnoughts of the steppe, but incapable of winning hearts and minds, they spent as much time hunting out Bolshevik spies — and torturing and killing the locals — as they did fighting the Reds. Ungern himself carried this sadistic paranoia to fever pitch.

...the whole story could have possessed the makings of a glorious offshoot of the Great Game, had Ungern been anything more than a murderous sadist. His chief contemporary biographer, the Polish author Ferdinand Ossendowski, ladled on the trappings — the messianic visionary who stood too firm for czar and the right of kings. Presumably Ossendowski saw beyond the torture, the firing squads, the casual executions; perhaps he was not unduly fazed by Ungern’s command to exterminate all the Jews, down to their children. Like many mad people, Ungern had the glittering eye and the gift for wandering prophecy that could, at a pinch, be taken for inspiration; and for a while his life seemed to be demonically protected. But it would be more true to say that the times brought forth the man, and these were appalling times.

...Ungern’s contempt for human life, his icy hatred of Jews, his appeal to a monstrous, ill-formed mysticism fore­shadowed the foundations of the Third Reich...

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