I have always been fascinated by Bohemond of Taranto. Such an exciting character, such colourful times he lived in. So many tense and gripping incidents in his story. He could be the protagonist of a novel. Well, in fact he is the protagonist of a novel, Count Bohemond by Alfred Duggan.
Alfred Duggan is someone I should talk about more on this blog, honestly.
But the romance and the sorta-kinda heroism and the just general … accomplishments of Bohemond make him the kind of character you can admire, like a pirate, while not actually wanting to ever go anywhere near him. He was more like Hannibal Lecter than Dirk Dauntless, I imagine.
That is the kind of historical character I get fixated on a bit sometimes: undeniably a thug and a bully, and undeniably someone who lived his life in a way that is, to put it mildly, hard for me to empathize with. But somehow impressive nonetheless.
But that style of historical violence addict can sometimes go too far even for me. Case in point: Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. Like most people who know about the Baron, he came to my attention when reading one of Peter Hopkirk’s books about interwar Central Asia. But I really got into him when my friend James Palmer published a biography of him.
I’m not going to spoil the book — you should read it — but suffice it to say that Ungern-Sternberg was a combination of eccentric and just utterly horrible. He was a Westerner fascinated by Buddhism, and there’s nothing too unusual about that, but the form his took was a little different from your typical spiritual seeker. Like, for instance, he got very enthusiastic about the idea of restoring the Bogd Khan — the traditional monarch — in Mongolia, as part of some kind of mystical monarchist thing. His particular brand of murderous bloodthirstiness went well with Mongolia’s demon-haunted mixture of Buddhism and traditional beliefs. He adopted a sort of Genghis Khan-type personality and may or may not have been referred to as the “God of war.” He was also a fierce anti-Semite. And I mean an anti-Semite even by the standards of a Russian aristocrat in 1920.
In any event, he set up as a warlord in Central Asia during the Russian Civil War, nominally part of the White army but in effect answering to no one but the voices in his head. He used to feed people to wolves and so on.
Not a guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley; he has sheep killer eyes. Or, to be more accurate, burn-you-alive eyes, or make-you-climb-a-tree-and-stay-there-all-night-and-shoot-you-when-you-fall-out eyes.
Like most real psycho tyrants, he didn’t last. He was captured by the reds and shot. Somehow, his policies of beating people to death with sticks or conscripting random strangers into his horde failed to endear him to his own troops, who tried to kill him.
He’s turned up in a few novels and games as a villain, but doesn’t seem to have the cultural penetration you’d expect from a legendary maniac. It’s probably because his mania was in the context of the Russian Civil War, something not a lot of us care about. But he’s worth a look if you like psychotic mass murderers with outrageous wardrobes.
Maybe “like” isn’t quite the right word there.