Although published now nearly a century ago – in 1927 – Harold Lamb’s highly successful biography Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men is still well worth a read.
Written in a style typical of history books of the period – strong on narrative accounts, weak on sourcing of evidence and heavily concentrating on individuals and military events rather than longer-term social and economic trends – it provides a lively and, by current standards, still reasonably accurate account of Genghis Khan’s rise and dominance as leader of the Monguls.
Given Khan’s record of large scale butchery of opponents – both military and civilian – no biography is ever going to portray him that nicely. But Lamb shows how he was a slightly more rounded character, pointing out how much of our knowledge of Khan rests on accounts written by his enemies and that religious toleration was a major feature of Khan’s rule – as was an emphasis on appointing military commanders based on expertise. This modest degree of meritocracy often gave the Mongols an advantage over opponents.
There was also a strong insistence on the rule of law – and it was a law that gave people some rights we would recognise, including a strong presumption of innocence. Someone accused of lawbreaking could only be convicted if they were caught red-handed or confessed. Such generosity did not extend to enemies, killed on an appalling scale with horrific regularity – illustrating how Khan was savvy enough to appreciate that treating your own side well helped keep you in power and get more from your supporters. Do that, be stronger and you can then kill even more opponents. Lamb implies that Khan’s killings were so widespread not because he was more bloodthirsty than contemporaries but simply because he was more successful.
That defining characteristic of death did leave me with one puzzle by the end. How did Genghis Khan end up being the person cited in the phrase ‘more right wing than…’? People all across the political spectrum have killed millions and Khan does not appear to have had views that make him an obvious candidate for a far right yardstick given his willingness to create bureaucracy to manage his lands, for example. That, however, is not a puzzle to hold against this book.