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Book review: Genghis Khan simply doesn’t deserve Frank McLynn’s first-rate biography

The life and crimes of Mongolia's most famous son are given new life in Frank McLynn's latest book.
Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy by Frank McLynn.

You see the immense steel statue at Tsonjin Boldog long before you reach it. You make a short drive from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar into the rolling, forbiddingly beautiful countryside, and there it is: the statue of a stern-faced mounted rider, facing east and towering 40 metres above the surroundings.

Visitors can use a lift and then climb some stairs and walk out on to the head of the horse, from which the view sprawls in all directions. It’s an intoxicating illusion: the whole of the world seems to lay prostrate at the feet of this mounted warrior.

The warrior is of course Genghis Khan, and seasoned historian Frank McLynn, in his new book Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, doesn’t hesitate in calling his subject the greatest conqueror in the history of the world, ruler of a loosely-organised kingdom that “stretched from the Pacific to the Caspian, from Korea to the Caucasus, from Siberia to the Yellow River”. McLynn builds his big book on the foundation of the earliest sources we have for Genghis Khan’s life and times, to which he adds “a synthesis of all the scholarship done in the major European languages in the past 40 years relating to Genghis and his sons”. The result is the most readable, enjoyable, and comprehensive study of the subject since John Man’s brilliant 2005 book Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection.

In a mildly daring move, he starts off his account not with the man but with the land, giving readers the written equivalent of that panoramic view they can get from the statue at Tsonjin Boldog. The steppe culture of medieval Mongolia is detailed in all its weather and wildlife, and in the centre of that world we find the Mongols, who are almost literally born horsemen, with very young children strapped on to mounts in order to learn the rhythm.

Into this fierce tribal world (characterised, as McLynn understates, by “gross political instability”) was born in 1162 Temujin, the boy who would later become Genghis Khan. He was the son of a tribal leader, and his formative years were filled with chaos, violence, and death. His father was fatally poisoned, his mother and brothers and step-brothers were cast out of Mongol society, he was kidnapped and enslaved by a rival clan, only barely escaped with his life, and quickly began fighting his way to the rulership his father’s premature death had denied him (including killing a half-brother who threatened his rise). Along the way, he continued to gain followers who saw him as an opportunity for glory and advancement. These followers, especially among the younger tribesmen, “welcomed Temujin as a breath of fresh air, a leader whose charisma depended on military victory and loot, one who, so to speak, delivered the goods instead of talking about them”.

He “delivered the goods” through a combination of canny treachery and brutality that soon enough found him standing on the banks of the Onon River in 1206 while a convocation of chieftains acclaimed him as Supreme Leader, Chingis or “Genghis” Khan. As McLynn writes, 1206 “was a watershed, the beginning of a new state; nothing would ever be the same again”.

But what followed seemed very much more of the same: more treachery and brutality, but conducted on a broader scale. Genghis Khan now had one million fighters at his disposal and the world before him – a world he promptly set about pillaging. China’s Jin empire, the kingdom of Khwarezmia, a string of powerful cities from Beijing to Bukhara to Samarkand – all were either sacked or destroyed in the following years, by what the earliest sources scornfully refer to as a combination of luck, lying, and talented generals. To his enemies, from rival Mongolian warlords to China to the shah of Iran, he offered the same ultimatum: “Surrender or die.”

Even enemies who did surrender were often tortured to death, and for captives taken in war, death was a nearly universal fate. Genghis Khan and his generals would “leapfrog” from city to city, using thousands of prisoners from the previous conquest as involuntary shock-troops to absorb the brunt of the slaughter in taking the next conquest. He and his generals were meticulously thorough in the destruction they wrought; it took an entire week for Mongol forces to massacre every person in the taken city of Kerat, for example, with soldiers stationed to stand around waiting for survivors to emerge in the aftermath – so that they could be killed too. In the Hindu Kush thousands of starving Indian slaves were forced to gather supplies of rice and store them in warehouses – and then massacred so that their “useless” mouths wouldn’t need to be fed. Mountains of severed heads were piled outside conquered cities.

In 1257, on campaign in northwestern China, Genghis Khan quickly sickened and died (“Genghis departed this life much as he had lived in it,” McLynn writes, “in a tourbillion of death and bloodshed)”. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. The rule of the Mongol armies and vast holdings passed to Genghis’s son Ogodei, who continued the conquests of his father, conducting devastating campaigns against Jin China, ordering attacks against Korea, modern-day Pakistan, Kashmir, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia. The armies of Ogodei were on their way to Austria when he died suddenly (McLynn agrees with the likely assessment that he was poisoned). The extensive conquests of Ogodei’s various generals are also recounted, always in grippingly readable detail.

And as with all such accounts of Genghis Khan and his sons, the mountain of appalling details seems to beg for a reckoning, an assessment of some kind. McLynn is far from the first biographer to feel a need to address the “genius” of the conqueror, how this provincial warlord implemented a uniform script throughout his domains (though he himself was illiterate), reworked the command structure of his armies toward greater efficiency, and established a kind of meritocracy, where ability was encouraged independent of social rank.

“How cruel was he?” is one of the inevitable questions in such a reckoning, and here McLynn is at his controversial best. He maintains that Genghis Khan didn’t have a reputation among his contemporaries for exceptional cruelty (even going so far as to make the astonishing claim that Henry VIII in the 16th century had a far worse reputation. If Henry’s French campaigns of either 1513 or 1544 featured massive slave armies used as canon fodder or huge mounds of decapitated French heads, I must have missed it.) Although conceding that Genghis Khan was cruel and untrustworthy to friend and foe alike, McLynn somewhat farcically contends he was “a good listener” and a good judge of character.

McLynn calls this partial rehabilitation of Genghis Khan’s reputation “altogether just”, but has some stern words for those who might take the rehabilitation too far. “While the Mongol’s military achievements were stupendous,” he writes, “they were otherwise totally parasitic”, creating no art, no literature, no architecture, no technology, no agriculture, no philosophies, no culture – instead, they relied completely on captured, enslaved, or otherwise co-opted craftsmen for all of these things, caring themselves mainly about drinking, raping, and slaughter. The empires of Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and Napoleon, McLynn tells us, crumbled as soon as their founders were dead, whereas the “genius” of Genghis Khan lay in the fact that he established something sturdier, something he could hand on to his son and successor.

The warning against hagiography is well taken, but there’s a possibility that any mention of “genius” here is verging on it. Genghis Khan was utterly ruthless, personally vicious and cowardly, systematically, enthusiastically cruel, and treacherous – even to those who’d given him years of loyalty. And he was extravagantly violent, ordering the deaths of millions of innocent civilians. He has a gigantic steel statue out on the plain, yes, but despite the efforts of even his best biographer, the simple truth is that his world would have been a much better place if he’d never been born. When McLynn reminds us that Genghis was “admirably free of both racial prejudice and religious intolerance”, we sense a straining that this blood-soaked mass murderer simply doesn’t deserve, a first-rate biography devoted to the worst person of an age.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Updated: July 16, 2015 04:00 AM