Some famous people get their own TV Tropes page for being great scientists or politicians. Others for their military skill or artistry. A few get it for simply being so batshit insane that they can't be ignored. Guess which category Baron Ungern-Sternberg falls under?
Going by the full name of Roman (Robert) Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg (born Robert Nikolaus Maximilian Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg, 10 January 1886 [29 December 1885 in the Old Style calendar] 15 September 1921) (usually shortened to Roman von Ungern-Sternberg or just Ungern), this blood-soaked Russian warlord seems like a character from a pulp novel, but to his victims he was all too real. Born to a family of Baltic German nobles (these families formed the backbone of the Tsarist state), Ungern relished the ideals of absolute monarchy and feudalism. As Russia was modernized in leaps and bounds, Ungern delved ever more deeply into right-wing extremism and ancient mysticism. A most unorthodox Orthodox Christian, he also absorbed (and horribly misinterpreted) several Buddhist ideals, and showed a general fascination with East Asia.
Ungern wasn't a bully in school, but rather one of the kids that scared even the bullies. He did badly in the military academy, too spoiled and unstable to handle discipline. He jumped at the chance to fight the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War, but most of the conflict ended before he could get there. The seriousness of the situation did serve to drum at least a little bit of discipline into him, and Ungern, for all his Russian pride, admired the skill and courage of the Imperial Japanese Army.
At the end of the war, he went back west where he was both horrified by the democratic reforms occurring in the Russian government, and fascinated by new strains of mysticism (including a particularly rabid Anti-Semitism). He eventually joined the Transbaikal Cossack Host. The hard-riding Cossacks were rightly feared for their ferocity, and Ungern found himself right at home. As a man whose soul was fundamentally medieval, he had never really fit in with the increasingly gentrified Russian officer corps. Still, the Cossack life could not offer the excitement Ungern craved. During this time, he got his first glimpse of Mongolia, and was enchanted by its antiquity and militant brand of Buddhism.
Ungern finally got his chance to fight during World War I, where accounts describe him fearlessly leading charges into No Man's Land and conducting behind-the-lines guerilla operations against the Austrians. Though lacking much in the way of admirable traits, Ungern was at least brave, almost suicidally so. For Russia, that war ended in the October Revolution, which eventually turned into the horrific Russian Civil War.
Given his reactionary personality and political views, it's no surprise that Ungern joined the Whites, who were mainly defined by their opposition to the Bolshevik Reds. Most of the battles were fought in the icy abattoirs of Siberia, atrocities piling up on both sides. Wolves grew fat on human flesh while bandit soldiers terrorized the countryside in armored trains. He was eventually put in charge of Dauria, a remote spot on the Manchurian-Russian border. He ruled absolutely and with horrific violence—Jews were singled out for special brutality. The fact that Dauria doubled as an execution camp for Red prisoners served as another outlet for Ungern's violence. Even among a bunch as cruel as the White leaders, Ungern achieved a reputation for legendary sadism. Unlike the other Whites, he was an ascetic, and lived in the same conditions as his men. This was one of the reasons his soldiers stayed loyal to him in spite of his barbarity and obvious insanity. At this time, Ungern also took up an interest in fortune telling and opium smoking.
Perhaps seeing that the Whites were doomed, he led his cavalry forces into Mongolia. There he planned to create a new Mongol Horde, and use it to conquer Russia and usher in a new age of apocalyptic glory. At the time, Mongolia was a mess, reeling from the fallout of the Russian Civil War, as well as an invasion from China. The Chinese had thrown out Mongolia's previous theocratic ruler, Bogd Khan (who was also considered a bodhisattva). The Mongols didn't like the Chinese (or Russians) very much. Ungern exploited the Mongol tensions and beliefs to conquer the region with his half-starved army of looters. He took the capital city by setting fires in the hills surrounding it, making his force seem much bigger than it actually was. This bluff crippled the already frightened Chinese garrison. After this, he was declared a khan with the approval of the Bogd Khan, who was probably wondering what he'd gotten himself into at this point.
Ungern's tenure as warlord of Mongolia is notable mostly for its cruelty. He'd taken to dressing up in traditional Mongol clothes and relying on soothsayers. Seeing Red spies and Jews behind every door, he began a horrific purge, all the while savoring his lunatic fantasies of a great Pan-Asian empire. This was an unlikely prospect for many reasons, not the least of which was Ungern's complete failure to understand logistics. He never even had a clear idea as to the size of his army (which was funded by loot). The Soviets, seeing an opportunity to spread revolution, attacked Mongolia in 1921, defeating Ungern and setting up a Communist government in Mongolia. In retaliation, Ungern attacked Soviet territories until finally being handed over to the Reds by his own officers. After a show trial, he was shot by firing squad on September 15, 1921.
And thus ends the story of Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximillian Ungern von Sternberg: the Bloody Baron, God of War, and Last Khan of Mongolia.
Note: Most of the information on this page was taken from The Bloody White Baron, a history book about Ungern-Sternberg written by James Palmer. A chapter about him can be found in Setting the East Ablaze by Peter Hopkirk, which describes him roughly the same way. An article about him here also heavily references Palmer's book.
Both Hopkirk and Palmer draw heavily on Ferdinand Ossendowski's 1922 memoir Beast, Men and Gods. Ossendowski was a Polish scientist and engineer who served for a time as Ungern's political advisor after fleeing from the revolutionary terror. It can be read online here.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Alternate History: Ungern's alleged insanity and his aborted overly ambitious dreams of conquests make him a quite popular character in the genre, usually to imagine what he could achieve if he lived longer.
- The Conqueror: His usual portrayal in Alternate History media.
Works featuring Ungern-Sternberg:
- Corto Maltese met him in Corto Maltese in Siberia.
Films — Live-Action
- He is featured in The Clay Machine Gun (Chapayev and Void) by Victor Pelevin.
- Soviet film Nomadic front (Russian: Кочующий фронт) featured Ungern as one of the antagonists.
- Mongolian film Baron Ungern is an account of Baron's rule over that country.
- Leonid Yozefovich wrote Autocrat of the Desert (Russian: Самодержец пустыни), a detailed account of Ungern-Sternberg's life, combat deployments, short rule over Mongolia as well as his ill-founded philosophy. Also includes letters he wrote during the various periods of his life.
- The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer is another account of Ungern-Sternberg's life, considered by Western critics to be an essential read on this subject.
- Beasts, Men, and Gods by Ferdinand Ossendowski. This was a wildly-successful firsthand account, first published in 1921, of the author's time actually travelling with Ungern-Sternberg in Mongolia. But as Palmer notes, historians find it more frustrating than anything else, because some of the, let's say "flights of fancy" cast doubt on the rest of the text.
- Charles Stross' The Fuller Memorandum suggests that despite being a raving psychopath, he's the one who built the Wall of Pain on the dead plateau to keep the Sleeper in the Pyramid contained and postpone CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, something that the Laundry didn't get around to until the 1970s with the white elephants. The summoning of the Eater of Souls happened due to carelessness by one of Ungern-Sternberg's subordinates.
- A 1938 German novel entitled I Order! The Struggle and Tragedy of Baron Ungern-Sternberg idolizes Ungern-Sternberg as a heroic proto-Hitler.
- In The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Ungern-Sternberg was supposedly the great uncle of the Baroness Ungern's late husband. This fits, given the Baronesses' interest in fortunetelling, the occult and anti-Semetic tendencies.
- TSIDMZ, Italian post-atomic/electro-martial band issued an album called Ungern Von Sternberg Khan.
- A Ukrainian Black Metal band is named "Ungern" and has a song called "Sinister Warble of Baron Ungern".
- A thinly-veiled Expy of Ungern-Sternberg (named Ugenberg) is the Big Bad of the Alternate History FPS game Iron Storm. Unlike the real Sternberg, this one succeeded in becoming a 20th century Genghis Khan, taking over large parts of Europe and Asia. The game's story is set in an alternate 1960s, a dystopian Crapsack World, where World War I still rages on between Ugenberg's empire and a questionably democratic league of free western states.
- He is the starting leader of Mongolia in the Hearts of Iron II/Darkest Hour/Hearts of Iron IV modification Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg, an Alternate History where the Central Powers won World War I. Ungern-Sternberg Mongolia is quite aggressive in this mod, and has plans of conquering the world, or at least half of Asia. In the IV version of the mod, Mongolia is in a quasi civil war state during the first months of the campaign, and whether Ungern remains in power or not is up to the Mongolia player.
- Kaiserredux, a Denser and Wackier submod for the Hearts of Iron IV version of Kaiserreich, makes Ungern even crazier. He can crown himself the new Gengis Khan.note
- The Spin-Off Red Flood (based on a Double-Blind What-If in the original Kaiserreich) features him as well, as the starting warlord of a Central Asia country named "Imperial Authority", located around Tannu-Tuva instead of Mongolia. As above, his goal in this timeline consists in conquering most of Central and Eastern Asia.
- He is featured on an AlternateHistory.com timeline called 20th Century Khan : A Timeline. It's Ungern Khan surviving, eventually ruling over Mongolia, forging a deal with Japan, conquering Russia from Stalin, and even making Hitler shudder.
- A Central East mentions Ungern-Sternberg... in a footnote, where he is killed off. This was a minor Take That! against his 'fandom' in the AH community at the time. Either that, or him being Too Cool to Live.
- Orange Buddha (Russian: Рыжий Будда) by Sergey Markov is a fictionalized account of the Bolsheviks' campaign against Ungern.
- Baron Sternberg has some popularity among russian Eurasianist and National Bolshevist circles. Dugin and Limonow frequently mention that guy in their works. (For example, on Dugins "recommended reading" list.) According to Limonows biographer Emmanuel Carrere, one reason why Limonow started working with Dugin was, because he hoped Dugin could provide more information about Baron Sternberg. It may seems like a Case of Misaimed Fandom that a berserker who wanted to slaughter every bolshevik he could be find, would be idolized by the National Bolshevist party, but it can be suspected that Limonow sees this guy as a kind of crypto anarchist due to his leadership style.