Published 2009 by Basic Books  ISBN: -13:978-0-465-01448-4  274 pages

As a history and religious studies major/minor during my collegiate years, one of my professors in Eastern religions attempted to “prove” that not all religions are theistic, citing Buddhism as an example. I took exception to this (as I frequently did with my religious studies teachers) and pointed out that, while many Buddhists do not believe in Supreme Beings, others do. Simply put, if your branch of Buddhism incorporates supernaturalism and magical thinking, then it is a religion. If it is completely secular, it is a philosophy. This distinction, as you might expect was lost on her, as seems to be the case with most religious believers.

Buddhism, often cited as a benevolent, peaceful religion, has long since attained a degree of acceptance in Western civilization. But, as with all religions, there is a marked degree of intolerance, violence and atrocities that has shown up at various times during its history. The Bloody White Baron: The extraordinary story of the Russian nobleman who became the last Khan of Mongolia showcases an often ignored aspect of twentieth century history, while showing a side of Buddhism that few are aware of.

Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Steinberg, the bloody baron, was an appalling early twentieth century historical figure in a century noted for appalling figures. Although little remembered today he was, in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War that followed the revolutions of 1917, one of the best known and most feared people on the planet.

All but unknown until the Russian Civil War, Ungern joined the White army (actually, the Whites were not a single unified movement, but rather a conglomeration of different factions unified solely by their opposition to the Bolsheviks) and soon gained a reputation for unparalleled barbarity during a conflict that was exceedingly brutal and which saw unspeakable atrocities committed by both sides. This White Russian became a cavalry major-general who led his men into Mongolia, defeated the Chinese forces occupying the country, and set up a regime that lasted only briefly before ultimate defeat.

Raised as a Christian, Baron Ungern became fascinated with Buddhism, although he never studied either religion in depth. What interested him was the pomp, ceremony, and customs of religion in general. In particular, magic and mystery were central to his beliefs. In terms of his faith, the best way to describe him is as an extremely eccentric mystic who believed in astrology, fortune tellers, and other fringe aspects of the supernatural which served to guide his actions and destiny. He believed in a divine order to the universe in which a king ruled and who was the final authority in all matters. In imperial Russia, the tsar became, in his mind, the living embodiment of the divine will, the source of all law and morality. To act against the tsar was, to Ungern, a threat to the divine order. He viewed the murder of Tsar Nicholas II as unleashing the forces of evil; anything that threatened the established order was something to be fought, and with the utmost brutality. This is why Ungern became such a staunch opponent of the victorious Bolsheviks; simply put, he viewed them is evil incarnate. This they soon proved themselves to be, but not for the reasons Ungern imagined.

To understand Ungern’s worldview, author James Palmer takes us on a fascinating trek to the world of post-war Mongolia. He describes how Mongolia had lost its independence, swallowed up by Russia and China. Buddhism, in its Mongolian manifestation, was ostensibly based on Mahayana Buddhism, emanating from Tibet. This version, in contrast with Chinese Buddhism, emphasized magic, mysteries, and demons, among other things, and this played a crucial role in Ungern’s worldview and strategies for conquest. He also incorporated Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy into his religious worldview. In other words, Ungern’s agenda wasn’t set by military strategies or by religious texts. Rather, he constantly consulted shamen, fortune tellers and other mystics in order to find what to do next. He considered his dreams to be divine “visions.” All these religions/cults were present in Tibet, Mongolia, Russia and China, along with an intense anti-Semitism, which formed a crucial part of Ungern’s worldview. The Jews were to be slaughtered on sight as his marauding hordes conquered more and more territory.

Urga, Mongolia’s most populous city, became his base of operations. It must have been strikingly similar to the most backward medieval cities: Religion was the order of the day and the population had no sewers or drainage system; refuse and human waste were left in the streets. Bathing was virtually unheard of. An estimated forty percent of the population were either monks or had some connection to the monasteries. Again, we see the connection between fundamentalist religious ideology, ignorance, and complete moral/physical backwardness. This is one of the great constants throughout religious history.

Another constant is seen in the intense desire for a savior to return and make things right again. Whether manifested in the ancient mystery cults, the return of Jesus, the two main branches of Islam or in some other way, this irrational hope was of crucial importance to Ungern, and he gave it his own unique spin. He believed that Michael, the brother and successor to Nicholas II (who had been murdered by the Bolsheviks, although Ungern was unaware of this) was going to return and make Russia holy and righteous again.

Ungern’s intense religious fanaticism dovetailed with a totalitarian policy of merciless conquest and extermination of those who dared to stand in his way. This is yet another example of how religion and totalitarianism can go hand in hand! The countless murders, tortures, and other evils committed by him and his henchmen were so extreme that even the Bolsheviks, no strangers to mass murder, were shocked. Ungern thrilled in all this destruction; after all, it was done in the name of religious morality! To cite but one of an endless number of examples, a boy was roasted alive in an oven for the “crime” of allegedly being supportive of the Reds.

In reading this book, the observant reader will note how the same patterns occur over and again in history: Every time a religious fundamentalist gets control of a country and aligns himself with either far-right or far-left politics and the strong-arm support of the military, a brutal dictatorship ensues. Palmer also notes: “His (Ungern’s) strategy also included that mainstay of disastrous military expeditions from Harper’s Ferry to the Bay of Pigs: ‘the people will rise and join us!’” (pg. 213) The lessons of history still haven’t been learned.

This story needs to be better known; Palmer has done us an immense service by writing this engrossing book. Although the numbers of Ungern’s victims pales in comparison with those subsequently killed by fascism and communism, The Bloody White Baron is a stark illustration of how medievalism survived into the twentieth century. Given today’s political climate in these no longer “United” States, it gives us pause to ask: Can it happen here?

Categories:   Book Reviews