“Heʹs out there, operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the
pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field
– General Corman on Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now.
Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg is what you would get if you crossed Vlad the
Impaler, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Kali-Ma and goddamned Christopher Walken from Sleepy Hollow all
up into one dude with access to automatic weapons, high explosives, a horde of psychotic Mongol
warriors, then had him blessed by the Dalai Lama to be the physical incarnation of the Tibetan
Blood God of Vengeance. In the Mad Baronʹs six months humping sanity to death, massacring communists
and fist fighting wolves (literally fist fighting wolves) in the steppes of Central Asia as the self-
proclaimed heir to Genghis Khan, Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg cleaved himself a blood-soaked,
horrific, brutal, and out-of-his-gourd insane reputation…
“Ungern looked at everyone with the eyes of a beast of prey”
From roughly 1906 to 1914, Ungern was an officer in the Cossack cavalry in the eastern front. Now, if
you don’t know much about the Cossacks, here’s the short version – these guys are insane
madman horse warriors who are world-renowned for their face-shanking savagery and hardcore brutality.
Commanding a unit he designated the “Order of Military Buddhists,” Ungern spent most of his time
living with the badass Mongols and Cossacks in Mongolia, learned to speak fluent Mongolian, converted
to Buddhism, and told his men they could party with unlimited vodka, booze, hash, opium, and women
just as long as they kept their crap together and honed their fighting skills day and night. When one
group of his own men pissed him off by being too undisciplined, he stripped them down to their
underwear, had them jump into a freezing-cold lake in the dead of the Mongolian sub-zero winter, then
he pulled them out and sicced goddamn wolves on the poor bastards, forcing them to fight off
the assault with their bare hands. Only half of the men survived, but those guys were immediately
part of his elite cadre of warriors.
When World War I went down, Ungern and the Cossacks were some of the first men to go charging out
there on horseback head-on into entrenched lines of Austrian infantry with belt-fed machine guns.
Ungern’s attacks were psychotic, suicidal, and completely reckless, but he led every attack
personally, galloping ahead on a white horse, seemingly completely impervious to any form of
conventional weaponry. He was shot, had horses killed out from under him, took a sword wound
to the skull, and was wounded another dozen or so times in hand-to-hand combat over the course of the
war, but he fought with an insane disregard for anything a normal person would recognize as fear and
just continually went right back into the teeth of the enemy. Most of his unit was massacred pretty
much every time they tried to attack, and Ungern was reportedly passed over for promotion despite his
bravery because this guy was so suicidally insane that he couldn’t really be trusted with a large
group of soldiers.
World War I ended with the collapse of the Russian Empire, and before long the situation in Mother
Russia deteriorated to where the Communist Red Army was involved in a civil war with the Tsarist White
Army. Being part of the aristocracy, Baron Ungern was obviously very pro-White, and he immediately
rushed back out East to start kicking the crap out of Bolsheviks, Marxists, and basically just blindly
running screaming towards anything red like he was a murderous bull from a cartoon about genocide.
Raiding, plundering, looting, and destroying Red Army supporters anywhere he could find them, Ungern
led a completely-unsanctioned renegade one-psychopath war against Russian Communism. He outfitted
armored trains with cannons from gunships and rode them along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He dragged
prisoners behind his trucks. He skinned people alive. He did all sorts of psychotic super-villain
crap, and he did it all in the name of reinstating a Tsar who had already (unbeknownst to Ungern)
already been capped in the head by the Bolsheviks…
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the houses of its children.
“This is not a way of life.... Under the cloud of war, it is humanity hanging itself on a cross of iron.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower, speech. April 16, 1953.
Every war fought to save a society ends by destroying it - and nowhere was that more true than the Great War that began in August of 1914. When the jostling imperial nation states of Europe collided, the 20th century that had begun with such hope would be wrenched, darkened, defined by the results - whatever those results might be. There could be no good outcome to the grinding, mechanized, industrialized horror of the First World War - but across the parallels of Time, some outcomes were worse than others...
In our world, the war that started in 1914 was only the First World War, ushering in a century of nearly continuous warfare - the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Cold War Europe, Persian Gulf, Iraq...
In this timeline, the Great World War has itself been that "century of warfare," for it has simply gone on, through the 1920s, the ʹ30s, the ʹ40s, the ʹ50s... A continuous brushfire war has burned back and forth across Eastern and Central Europe for year after year, decade after decade, shaping, defining, preventing the 20th century. Like the Thirty Years War before it, the Great World War has gone on, and on, entire generations thrown into the fire, as the old nations of Eastern Europe disappeared into a shattered, desolate landscape of starvation and rusting wreckage.
The current year is Anno Belli 40 - AD 1954. The Allied Nations face their intractable, dehumanized, alien foe across the massive entrenchments of the Siegfried Line - deep and wide trenches, thick belts of barbed wire, machine-gun positions, concrete bunkers, tunnels and command posts. The howling hordes who charge into the Allied guns are commanded by a fanatic, charismatic lunatic who combines the qualities of our worldʹs Mao Tse Tung and Adolph Hitler - Padishah Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg Khaan, the Bloody Baron, Khan of Khans, Sword of the Faithful, Sultan ul-Mujahidin, &c., &c. - the "Mad Baron" who is determined to save the world from itself, no matter how much of that world may be destroyed in the process.
Balancing the triangle is the League of Southern Nations, headquartered in Asunción Paraguay - an economic cartel that plays upon, stabilizes and, some say, feeds upon the death-embrace of their neighbors in the Northern Hemisphere.
Each bloc has its agents of influence; Paris and Mexico City swirl with spies, while the war effort employs scientists, engineers, technicians of every description. Mercenaries and freebooters and partisans fight on all sides. Arms manufacturers enjoy the prestige - and income - of the largest automakers of our world. The governments of the world lean against each other, define themselves and maintain themselves and their societies in opposition to their entrenched enemy - on both sides of the Line. It is a surprisingly stable, relatively prosperous and reassuring arrangement. Everyone dreams of the better life to come, "after the War is over" - yet to the Powers that Be, the end of the Great World War would be a social and economic disaster.
By 1910, for a great many reasons, a great many people in Europe wanted to go to war. In August of 1914, they did. The supposed reason was a relatively trivial tragedy; the tragedy it unleashed would reshape history.
Within months, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Russia would be battling Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire for reasons few really understood: They fought merely to win the war. For no other or better reason, even the United States were finally dragged into the conflict in April of 1917.
Some while before that, however, a relatively workaday decision was made that would have profound, unforeseen repercussions. In the spring of 1915, Baron Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel of the Imperial Russian Army made a pragmatic decision that would impact the rest of the 20th Century: He sent a “very brave, but somewhat reckless and mentally unstable officer” under his command - the equally aristocratic Baron Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, a man of whom he was somewhat afraid - out of the way, as he saw it. Instead of posting him to fight in the south of Poland as was originally planned, he banished him to the ends of the earth - sending him to the Russian Far East to establish a loyal military presence there, and to counter the growing Japanese influence.
Infuriated at this blatant betrayal, the Baron - who was a devout Buddhist - promptly sold out to the Japanese, who were interested in establishing a puppet state in the Far East. With their guidance and backing, the erratic but charismatic Baron - who had his own reasons for doing so - conquered Mongolia in 1917.
This was not what Wrangel had intended, and he sent the Cossack chieftain Grigory Semyonov to bring the errant Baron Ungern-Sternberg to heel.
His timing was very bad - for the Bolshevik Revolution was happening, and all lines of communication quickly became irregular. Semyonov found himself on his own, without aid or support - and without hesitation he kicked over the traces, joining the former Russian officer he was supposed to fight. He became, in the words of Henry Norton, "a plain bandit [who] drew his income from holding up trains and forcing payments, no matter what the nature of the load nor for whose benefit it was being shipped." Baron Ungern-Sternberg was either unable to control him or did not care to; wrapped in mystical visions of destiny, he looked to the West, unheeding of Semyenovʹs bully-troops as they stole, burned, raped and murdered, looting supplies from Red and White forces indiscriminately. Much of Ungern-Sternbergʹs later reputation as the "Bloody Baron" would rise from these days.
Meanwhile, to the West, the Russian Civil War ground and pounded on, and things were not going well for the Whites, the anti-Communist forces. The ineffectual Admiral Kolchak was losing ground; the country was sinking into chaos and ruin. Baron Ungern-Sternberg knew that his time had come. The Buddhist teachings were clear; "Kalachakra prophesizes that when the world declines into war and greed, and all is lost, the twenty-fifth Kulika king will emerge from Shambhala with a huge army to vanquish the ʹDark Forcesʹ and usher in a worldwide Golden Age." Humbly, Baron Ungern-Sternberg knew that he was only the appointed messenger of that Greater King to come - that it was his karma, his destiny, to clear the way. It was time to get started.
What he preached to his lieutenants and their forces has never been recorded; the result has never been forgotten. From Mongolia, from Siberia - "from the very stones of the ground" - horsemen who might have ridden with Genghis Khan burst forth from their ancestral homeland and plunged westward on pirated railroad trains. Against them the confused, disorganized armies of Russia, both Red and White, could not stand - and when they broke, the tattered, dispirited Turks of the former Ottoman Empire, smarting under their humiliating loss to the Allies, took heart. They saw a man come striding out of the East, a conqueror who sent their oppressors sprawling and fleeing, and the Turks who already fought with him spoke in superstitious awe of his manic - not to say insane - courage. This was a man who could - and did - wade into a battle through flying lead and steel, reach the enemy ranks untouched, unwounded, and start clubbing them to death with a stick - his heavy bamboo tashur, that had drawn blood countless times in Mongolia. The enemy routed in panic before such a man - and the Turks knew what they were seeing: Here indeed was the Mahdi, the prophesied Redeemer of Islam, the man who would cleanse the world. They knelt en masse before him -
And thatʹs when the lights started burning late in Whitehall. Events in Mongolia interested few in the West - but the British had just finished dismantling the Ottoman Empire to suit themselves, and the last thing they needed was another Mahdi stirring things up. Hadnʹt they fought the last one, in the Sudan? And what had that got them? Further, this one was a Russian - and the British knew about the Russians, having fought the "Great Game" against Moscow for control of Central Asia for years. Every dispatch brought worse news - with alarming speed, His Majestyʹs Government found themselves losing control of the situation. The Governmentʹs displeasure only deepened as they became aware of how little political support existed for renewed military excursions: Nearly two million men had been killed or disabled in the trenches of France, and the tax burdens and government expenditures of the War just ended were resented with increasing bitterness. No one wanted to go back to war. Nonetheless, soon enough, the War would come back to them.
The tide was turning in the Russian Civil War; the White forces were grimly holding the line against the Reds along the Tobol and Ishim rivers, but they were running out of time - and luck. In our world, their collapse was weeks away, the dissolution of the White forces soon followed, and the triumphant Communist Party settled down to its career of mass murder "for the greater good."
Instead, here, the Whites quite suddenly found themselves reinforced by what Clark describes as "the leader of a motley crew of crack mercenaries, Moslems and Buddhists, some of whom were believed to have fought under him from Siberia to Lhasa, from Mongolia to Afghanistan… He rode a magnificent white-dappled stallion, showing three black sword scars on its shoulders, claimed by one of his men to be captured from the King of Afghanistanʹs army… A Russian-Turko Mussulman syce tended his mount, often swishing a red horsehair fly switch; and a Nepalese gunbearer, a Gurkha, rode at his side with a rifle - a Mannlicher, probably the worldʹs finest 8mm sporting gun."
Against this flamboyant, charismatic lunatic, the cautious and retiring Admiral Kolchak stood no chance. With fresh grinning reinforcements arriving steadily, Baron Ungern-Sternberg was soon in de facto command of the White forces, and his vanguard force of Russians, Japanese, Mongols, Turks, Tibetans, Tungans, and Chinese bandits butchered and tortured in the classic Golden Horde fashion until the Reds threw down their weapons and fled in terror. The Bolshevik Revolution unraveled rapidly in the weeks that followed; "war communism" imposed at bayonet-point broke down into brigandage and starvation, the Party suffered a bad power schism at just the wrong time - and by October 1919 Mongol horsemen were whooping and pillaging a Moscow in flames. Blood ran in the gutters, girls screamed and sobbed, and the bodies of every Bolshevik who could be caught, blackened where they hung from burning nooses. The Russian Revolution was over.
In the spring of 1920, the combined armies of Eurasia - Moslem and Christian, Russian and Mongolian, Turkish and Chinese, blooded veterans and raw levees alike - marched forth at the Mad Baronʹs command, and began the assault on the West that would not end for almost fifty years to come...