Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The bonfires were lit shortly after nightfall on 31 January, 1921.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know
To the Chinese garrison in Urga, the capital of Mongolia, it was the first sign that something was seriously wrong. 
For days, they had been expecting an attack from a small band of mercenaries. Now, seeing the ring of fires around Urga, they realised that a huge army was camped outside the city walls.
The leader of this army was one of the most monstrous commanders of the twentieth century - a sadistic psychopath with an alarmingly megalomaniac streak.
His name was Baron Roman Nikolaus Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg and he saw himself as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. Not only did he wanted to rebuild a mighty empire in Central Asia, he also intended to destroy Lenin’s Bolsheviks and restore a tsar to the throne of Russia.
His hero: Genghis Khan
Over the previous 12 months, the ‘Mad Baron’ had roved through Central Asia with his freelance mercenaries, attacking towns and villages with impunity.
In the chaos that followed the Bolshevik revolution, these outposts of the old tsarist empire were at the mercy of anyone who could raise an army of troops. The Mad Baron - whose eccentricities included a conversion to mystical Buddhism - now saw his chance to capture Mongolia's capital.
On campaign in Mongolia
Baron von Ungern-Sternberg had been born into a 1000-year old dynasty of Baltic noblemen who claimed descent from Attila the Hun. He fought with distinction in the First World War, winning a score of medals for valour. But he also began to display an alarmingly psychopathic streak, perhaps as the result of a serious sabre wound he received to his head.
‘His broad forehead bore a terrible sword cut which pulsed with red veins,’ wrote one who served with him.
At the war’s end, he began to recruit a freelance army in order to fight his two enemies - Bolsheviks and Jews. His soldiers were either White Russians deserters or Mongolian troops displaced by the occupying Chinese.
Mongolians in Urga, circa 1921
One who watched the baron oversee a batch of new recruits was shocked by his ruthlessness. ‘All men with physical defects were shot until only the able-bodied remained. He killed all Jews… hundreds of innocent people had been liquidated by the time the inspection was closed.’
Many of his recruits were homeless and destitute: they joined the Mad Baron in the hope of booty and plunder. In this they were not disappointed: as Baron von Ungern-Sternberg moved through Mongolia, he sacked a string of towns. Anyone who resisted was sadistically punished. Enemies were whipped to death, strangled, roasted alive and tied behind cars.
By January 1921, his terrifying army had conquered much of Mongolia and reached the capital, Urga.
Bodyguards of the Bogd Khan
The baron had fewer than 2,000 men and faced a far more numerous enemy. It was in order to trick the defenders into thinking that he had a huge army that he had lit the bonfires. He hoped to intimidate them before assaulting their citadel.
The attack began with an assault on city gates with hand grenades. Once these were destroyed, the baron’s men stormed the Chinese garrison and fought with machine guns, rifles and bayonets. Some even used meat cleavers. The soldiers then went on the rampage, slaughtering Jews and raping the women.
On campaign in Central Asia
‘Mad with revenge and hatred, the conquerors began plundering the city,’ wrote one. ‘Drunken horsemen galloped through the streets, shooting and killing at their fancy…’
After months of hunger and restlessness, these freelance soldiers unleashed violence and lust on everyone they could find. One poor boy, suspected of being ‘Red’ was roasted alive.
After three days, the baron ordered the violence to stop. Only Jews continued to be targeted, because ‘in my opinion, the Jews are not protected by any law.’
A mad glint in the eye: the baron in his tent
Some three weeks after the city’s capture, the Bogd Kahn, the hereditary ruler of Mongolia, was restored to his throne. It was part of the baron’s policy to restore monarchies to the lands he conquered. In return, he was rewarded with a string of honorary titles.
Military success soon went to the baron’s head. He now proclaimed himself Emperor of all Russia and set off northwards towards Soviet territory in order to attack Lenin’s Bolsheviks. After initial success, he suffered several serious reverses at the hands of the Red Army.
His magic seemed to have deserted him and as his rag-bag army retreated towards Chinese Turkestan, a group of them turned against him.
The Red Army: the enemy.
The Mad Baron was shot several times but managed to escape death. Bleeding heavily, he rode off into the night and was eventually captured by a Red Army patrol.
He was taken in chains to Siberia where he was tried by a people’s court. His fate was never in doubt: Lenin himself wanted him executed. After bragging about his 1000-year-old dynasty, and attempting to justify his actions, the Baron von Ungern-Sternberg was found guilty of countless crimes and shot by firing squad. It was the cleanest death in his long reign of terror.

UK Paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

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