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Baron Sternberg, meteoric nutter...

Some famous people get their own All The 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 Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximillian Ungern von Sternberg (usually shortened to Ungern-Sternberg or just Ungern), this blood-soaked Russian warlord seems like a villain from a pulp novel, but to his victims he was all too real. Born in 1885 to a family of Baltic German nobles (these families formed the backbone of the Tsarist state), Ungern relished the fading 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,[1] 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 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. He longed to see men die by the dozens at his hand. 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, 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. In other words, Ungern was in Heaven. 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 Daruia 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 (though the Reds were no better), 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, the corrupt 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, not wanting to leave any loose ends, attacked Mongolia in 1921, achieving some success. In retaliation, Ungern attacked Soviet territories until finally being handed over to the Reds by his own officers. The Reds shot Ungern without much ceremony, giving him an appropriately ignominious death.

So 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.

Tropes about Ungern-Sternberg:
  • Ax Crazy: Ungern and most of his entourage.
  • Badass Mustache
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Ungern might have been a better fit for an earlier time, though he would have still been an utterly worthless human being.
  • The Berserker
  • The Butcher : Also The Mad Baron. A rather charitable nickname.
  • Despotism Justifies the Means: For him, despotism was the means. Ungern loved absolutist monarchy.
    • From another point of view, he did not exactly fulfill this trope. Ungern did love crazy religious absolutist monarchy, but he seemed to regard it as Utopia Justifies the Means, and did not necessarily see himself as the monarch on the top.
  • Evil Chancellor: Bogd Khan, the actual ruler of Mongolia, probably qualifies for this trope. He'd been exiled from the capitol, and Ungern put him back in power. Under Bogd's rule, Ungern had a free rein to do almost anything he wanted. Bogd was also a savvy politician however, and dumped Ungern once the Red Army showed up. As for Bogd Khan himself, he was a theocrat who liked to hang live wires over the palace walls and watch superstitious pilgrims touch it and get shocked.
  • Evil Is Cool : Well he made evil interesting anyway.
  • Evil Overlord: A textbook case, with his very own dragon, Evil Chancellor, and Mad Doctor.
  • Fascist but Inefficient: Very, very inefficient.
  • Folk Hero: More a folkvillain. Over in Mongolia he has legends told about him unsurprisingly. For instance, supposedly (and predictably) he left a hidden treasure horde behind him.
  • Highly-Conspicuous Uniform: What Ungern himself wore in the middle of battle.
  • The Horde: And he was the leader.
  • Jungle Opera : He acted like a classic villain in one of these.
  • Mad Doctor: Not Ungern-Sternberg himself, but one of his followers, Dr. Klingenberg. While Ungern's troops were suffering the brutality of the Mongolian winter, Klingenberg suggested that the ones too sick to resume fighting be poisoned. Ungern was okay with this. Klingenberg was motivated both by pragmatic reasons, and due to his own bizarre ideas about fitness and evolution, making him a Social Darwinist as well.
  • Magnificent Bastard: Subverted. He had the charismatic personality of this, but he was just not smart enough. If it were fiction one would be disappointed. As it was...
  • Mighty Whitey: Maybe not so mighty. He conquered Mongolia when it was at its weakest, and didn't last very long. The trope was played straight in his own delusional mind, where he saw himself as a savior who would use the supposedly pure East to purify the decadent West.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Ungern tended to be this.
  • Rape, Pillage and Burn: Very enthusiastically too.
  • The Remnant: Ungern led a particularly ragged example.
    • At that a number of his followers joined him because they had nowhere else to go. The Reds were after them, the Chinese probably wouldn't be all that welcoming, and the biggest source of food for the winter was in the city of Urga.
  • Renegade Russian: Well, renegade Baltic-German who was a fanatical supporter of the dying Russian Empire.
  • Rule of Cool: OK, he was a murderous, vicious, Complete Monster. Yet his biography sells well.
  • Schizo-Tech: Ungern's army consisted of this. Tanks and armored carriers were used, but also mounted cavalry divisions (which Ungern preferred to lead into battle himself).
  • Straight Edge Evil: Played straight, except for the opium use. Ungern lived simply, shunned alcohol, and may have been asexual (or so deep in the closet he was in Narnia).
  • Take Over the World: What he planned to do, more or less. How? Pah! Details and logistics are for Communists!
  • Villainous Breakdown: After Ulaanbaatar fell to the Red Army, isolating Ungern in Siberia, he completely lost it. He went around bare-chested (this was during the summer) and covered in good luck charms that hung from a cord around his neck. Though he might have been able to escape to Manchuria or to the Japanese-backed White remnants, he decided that those plans made too much sense. Instead, he would lead his starving and poorly equipped mob across the Gobi Desert and run away to Tibet. This obviously never happened.
  • Villainous Valour: For all his faults, he was certainly brave

Works featuring Ungern-Sternberg:

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