His Brilliant Career

The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln

by Bernard Wasserstein
Yale University Press, 327 pp., $27.50

It sometimes happens, when we are engaged in some grave research, that some marginal figure coming in from outside, irrelevant to our purpose, so commands our attention that we are obliged to suspend our serious studies in order to exorcise him. This happened to me some years ago when the strange figure of Sir Edmund Backhouse intruded into my life and would not go away until I had written a book about him. Now Mr. Bernard Wasserstein, a distinguished modern historian, has suffered a similar intrusion. He has been diverted from his graver studies by a somewhat similar character: Ignácz Trebitsch, alias Ignatius Trebitsch Lincoln, sometime M.P. for Darlington, alias the abbot Chao Kung of Shanghai.

It is impossible for me to read this book without recalling Backhouse. It is not merely the incidental similarities in their careers—the fantasies, the forgeries, the illusions of espionage, the end in China—it is also the necessary similarities of historical method. In each case the intruder’s personality is concealed behind “veil after veil” of obfuscation and fantasy. In each case every revelation only deepened the mystery, opening “a window into a world of such bizarre and complex conspirational activity” that it seemed impossible to reach the truth. And in each case the only method of reaching it was to discard all evidence that came from the subject himself and work solely from independent sources. Mr. Wasserstein has gone far in search of such sources. He has tapped the archives of the British Foreign Office, the US Justice Department, the German Foreign Ministry, the private diaries of international conspirators, the documents of missionary societies in Canada and religious cults in China, the police records of Austria, Hungary, Shanghai.

He is not the first in the field. The biography by David Lampe and Laszlo Szenasi, The Self-Made Villain (1961), is a reputable work of research. But Mr. Wasserstein has gone much further, and deeper, been more critical, more reflective. This is surely the final work on a truly extraordinary career which, in the end, turns out to be fundamentally very different from that of Backhouse, which it superficially resembles.

How can one summarize that career, that “perpetual vaudeville act,” as it has been called, on three continents? Had it any meaning, or purpose, or consistency? As we read, it seems an endless succession of picaresque adventures, each more astonishing and absurd than the last. Always on the move, constantly changing his function, his name, his nationality, his religion, nearly always on the run from someone or something—criminal charges, prison sentences, would-be assassins—Ignácz Trebitsch nevertheless made no attempt to keep a low profile. On the contrary, equipped with dozens of different passports, in different names, he slipped through successive nets, cast off his pursuers, escaped from his prisons, and then triumphantly reappeared in another country, in the eye of the next international storm. The diplomats, the press, the police forces of the world grew weary of following him. They often lost the trail. Again and again they thought that they could close his file. But they never could. He kept them guessing to the end.

The story of “Trebitsch Lincoln” begins in Hungary, where he was born, the son of a Jewish businessman in the provincial town of Paks, south of Budapest. While he was still a boy, his father moved to Budapest, turned from trade to finance, made and lost a fortune, and so plunged his family into crippling poverty. These ups and downs left young Ignácz with a very casual attitude toward property. Inured to poverty, he enjoyed high life, when it came his way, and happily stole the money and forged the signatures of those rash enough to trust him—as many did: unworldly clergymen, worldly financiers, devout or impressionable ladies, hard-bitten and ruthless conspirators, Chinese warlords, Nazi thugs.

At the age of eighteen, after a brief taste of journalism in Budapest, Trebitsch began his travels. Lured (he said) by the prospect of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, but also pushed from behind by a criminal charge (the theft of a gold watch and chain), he arrived in England and found support from an Anglican organization for the conversion of Jews. But the rigorous discipline of religious hostels in London and Bristol did not suit him, and he soon slipped away (with another gold watch) back to Hungary. Thence he moved to Germany, declared himself a Christian, and married the daughter of a pious Lutheran ex-sea captain in Hamburg. She had been devalued in the marriage market, being burdened with an illegitimate child. Trebitsch, who read prayers in the family with great unction, was prepared to accept the burden for the sake of the dowry. His wife had a dreadful time with him but, in spite of everything, would remain loyal even after she had been abandoned. She is the obscure, long-suffering heroine of the story.

Being now a Christian and a sound Protestant, Trebitsch moved to Canada to exploit his spiritual gifts. At first we find him in a Presbyterian mission to convert immigrant Jews in Montreal. But the Presbyterians were poor, and soon he organized a takeover of the mission by the richer Anglicans. Then, when the Anglican directors in London proved inconveniently strict accountants, he planned a coup to secure independence. He saw a great future for himself in Canada: Did not the eighty-seven-year-old archbishop of Montreal prophesy that Trebitsch would one day be his successor? However, the plot failed and the death of his father-in-law provided an excuse to return to Europe to collect the inheritance. He had not converted a single Jew, but he had added another gold watch to his assets. A trail of stolen watches marked his early career.

Enriched by his wife’s legacy, he next turns up in England again as a probationer-curate preaching, with a strong Hungarian accent, to a handful of torpid villagers in Appledore in Romney Marsh. Had he then settled down to a career in the established Church? Of course not—and in any case his curacy ended when he failed dismally in his examination for ordination as deacon. However, the investment had not been entirely thrown away: it proved a good start for the next stage in his career, as a politician. After all, David Lloyd George, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, had begun as a Baptist preacher in Wales, and if Trebitsch, as a Jew, was even more of an outsider, there was also the example of Disraeli, who had first challenged, then captured, the political elite of England. Disraeli was one of young Trebitsch’s heroes. Another was Napoleon; another, whose name he would assume, Abraham Lincoln.

The move from religion to politics was made possible by another captivated patron, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree. Rowntree was a rich Quaker philanthropist whose family manufactured chocolate and cocoa in York. Through his interest in the temperance movement he had won the favor of Lloyd George and was now engaged on a project for the government that required social statistics from Western Europe. For this he needed a private secretary and researcher, and somehow he found Trebitsch. For over three years, from 1906 to 1909, Trebitsch was in clover. With a handsome salary and unquestioned expenses, he stayed in the best hotels, using his patron’s name and credit to gratify every whim and exasperate the British diplomats who were obliged to humor him. Nor did Rowntree’s patronage end there. When the research was over, and had been generously rewarded, Trebitsch found himself adopted, though still a Hungarian subject, as prospective Liberal member of Parliament for the northern borough of Darlington.

How could this have happened? It was, says Mr. Wasserstein, “one of the oddest aberrations in British political history.” Evidently it was the Quakers who fixed it. Three Quaker families—Pease, Backhouse, Rowntree—effectively dominated Darlington. The sitting Tory member was a Pease, who had succeeded his father. Their Liberal Unionist predecessor had been a Backhouse (Sir Jonathan, father of my Sir Edmund). The Backhouse interest had now turned Tory and backed Pease; but in 1910 Liberalism was in the ascendant, the Rowntrees were Liberal, and they owned the influential paper, the Northern Echo. Thanks to their support, Trebitsch was adopted and then, after a vigorous campaign, carried into Parliament by a majority of twenty-nine votes.

His parliamentary career was not distinguished. Nor was it long. Within a year, another general election was called, and by that time the Liberals, and even the Quakers, had seen through him. He was not readopted. Bankrupt (he settled his debts quietly for five shillings on the pound), discredited, and liable to criminal charges (his benefactor Rowntree would sue him for forging his signature to raise money), he left Darlington, never to return. However, once again, the experience had its value. Long afterward, Trebitsch would exploit the letters of support he had received, as Liberal candidate, from the Liberal ministers: Lloyd George, Sir Edward Grey, Winston Churchill.

What was he to do now? He had failed in the Church, failed in British politics; what was left? Though now destitute, he was not discouraged. Believing that insolvency was best met by increased expenditure—expenditure generating the income that it required—he established his now large family in a fine house at Watford, north of London, with a staff consisting of “a nurse, butler, cook, housemaid, charwoman and gardener,” and set out to make a fortune by cornering the oil wells of Galicia and Romania. So companies were set up, money was drawn in, a couple of foreign princes were named as directors, and for a few years the happy entrepreneur lived and traveled in luxury at shareholders’ expense. But by 1914 that bubble too had burst, and he was penniless again, wanted on charges of fraud in both London and Bucharest. Then came the First World War, just in time to provide a new opportunity. “The former journalist, exmissionary, unfrocked (if not actually defrocked) curate, failed politician, and bankrupt businessman sought to establish himself in the profession in which he would become world-famous: that of international spy.”

In 1916, in America, Trebitsch would publish his Revelations of an International Spy, claiming great achievements as a spy for Germany against Britain. In fact he never achieved anything. His main object in offering himself, first to the British, then to the German intelligence services, was to escape from his creditors. To the British, he offered to penetrate the German service and, by false information, to lure the German Grand Fleet to its destruction. Rebuffed, he went to Rotterdam and made similar offers to the Germans. Then he came back to penetrate the British Secret Service. But here he struck a fatal rock: he found himself faced by the formidable Captain “Blinker” Hall, afterward Sir Reginald Hall, the real author of the triumphs of British intelligence in the First World War. Hall saw through him at once, demanded his arrest, and gave orders that the ports be blocked to prevent his escape. Trebitsch lost no time: before he could be stopped, he had bolted to America.

Trebitsch never forgot or forgave his rejection by Hall, for in Hall he had met his match. Hall was almost the only man “who succeeded in dominating Trebitsch’s irrepressible personality.” From now on, Trebitsch was obsessed with the idea of revenge on Britain and, particularly, Hall. He expressed his obsession in threats and prophecies that he would personally overthrow the British Empire. But his anti-British paranoia was ambivalent: periodically he would profess that he was the greatest admirer of that empire—if only it would beg his forgiveness for the unpardonable vendetta launched against him by Captain Hall. Long afterward, in China, in one of these conciliatory moods, he would look back at his unhappy relations with Britain and declare that it was “an act of Captain Hall,…an act unjust to me that started the ball rolling.”

Having escaped from Britain and Captain Hall, Trebitsch lived in America under the protection of easily seduced German ladies, offered his services to the German Embassy, and gave free rein to his hatred of Britain and his claims to be the master spy of the century. He claimed to have spied against Britain for many years, traveling in Central Asia disguised as a Buddhist monk, and he threatened to return thither in order to rally Buddhists and Muslims against British rule: “when you hear of a great religious revival there,” he wrote, “think of I.T.T. Lincoln.” Exasperated by these antics, the British government determined to prosecute him on the charge of fraud against Rowntree: a charge on which he could be extradited. Ultimately, after many delays and adventures, he was deported to Britain, tried, and sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. When he was released, in 1919, he was deprived of his British nationality and deported to the Continent. But if the British authorities thought that they could forget him, they were mistaken. Determined on revenge, he headed for Germany: single-handed, by conspiracy, he would reverse the victory of 1918.

To achieve this, he discovered and attached himself to Colonel Max Bauer, the political agent of General Ludendorff. Bauer was a radical anti-Semite, an early friend of Adolf Hitler; but like so many other men, he was captivated by this Jewish enthusiast, who organized his publicity and outran him in the extravagance of his plans for the restoration of the monarchy, or, failing that, the establishment of a right-wing dictatorship. Trebitsch sought an interview with the ex-Kaiser, but, being rebuffed there, decided to put it about that the Kaiser was mad and to back the ex-Crown Prince instead. When the Crown Prince did not receive him, he envisaged Ludendorff as dictator, or—could it be?—himself. For now megalomania was growing upon him. Like Hitler, he believed in the triumph of the will, his will. “I beg you,” he wrote to the Crown Prince’s adjutant, “not to argue that the time is not yet ripe. The time is always ripe when a strongwilled man wills it so.” And he cited the examples of Julius Caesar, who overthrew a rotten republic, and Jesus Christ, who swept away “the garbage of old Jewish supersitition.”

On March 13, 1920, Bauer and his friends carried out their coup, the Kapp Putsch in Berlin. Trebitsch was there, standing by Kapp, with the two generals, Ludendorff and Lüttwitz. “Power is in our hands,” he declared, as he strode, with his guard of honor, into the breakfast room of the Hotel Excelsior. He took office as head of Press and Propaganda and outraged the journalists by his arrogant and arbitrary orders. When the Putsch faltered, he went personally to Ludendorff to call for his aid. When it collapsed, he was the last to leave the Chancellery building. As he left, he met two young men who had flown up from Munich to be in at the kill, but arrived only to see the killers routed. They were Dietrich Eckart and Adolf Hitler.

After that fiasco, Trebitsch was debarred from Germany as from Britain. He was now a traitor, with a price on his head. But he had protectors in right-wing Bavaria and in his native Hungary, where Admiral Horthy had swept away the brief communist regime of Béla Kun. Horthy’s Hungary was no less resentful of defeat, no less determined on “revision” than the Germany of Ludendorff and the Freikorps. So Budapest now became Trebitsch’s center. He was still closely associated with Bauer and, through him, with Ludendorff. They were now joined by a disreputable Russian émigré. Vasili Biskupski, afterward Hitler’s Russian expert, and by another Kapp Putschist, Franz von Stephani. Stephani was Jewish, but as commander of a Freikorps unit, with seven murders to his credit, he had been declared an honorary Aryan. Blessed by Admiral Horthy, cautiously supported by the Bavarian government, these conspirators organized a “White International,” which, they believed, would unite all the conquered peoples and recreate a greater Germany, a greater Hungary, a non-Bolshevik Russia. Once again, Trebitsch thought it essential to bring in Ludendorff to carry through the counterrevolution in Germany; mere Bavarian support was not enough. “I… want to make world policy,” he wrote to Bauer, “not small-time Bavarian pettifoggery.”

The White International in fact achieved nothing. The fragile unity of the conspirators broke up when the murderous Stephani proposed that Trebitsch be quietly liquidated. The murder of a Jew, explained the “honorary Aryan,” would not be noticed in Budapest. Trebitsch heard of this in time and escaped to Vienna, and thence to Prague, having neatly stolen Bauer’s suitcase, which contained the archives of the conspiracy. These he now hawked to the threatened governments of Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia. The result was unexpected: he was arrested in Vienna and sentenced to four months in jail on a charge of having forged the documents, which, in fact, for once, were genuine. On his release, he was deported from Austria. That left very few places open to him. But he was not downcast. Before leaving Austria, he managed to speak briefly to the press. “My destination,” he said, “is a profound secret. I shall disappear as if the earth had swallowed me and shall reappear in an unexpected quarter within eight years. Meanwhile I shall accomplish my task.” Within a year he reappeared, in China.

What was the “task” that he was to accomplish in China? Of course it was the overthrow of the British Empire—unless the British Empire first made obeisance, and amends, to him. His destination, he said, was Tibet. He was obsessed by Tibet, the capital of Buddhism, whence he would mobilize all Asia. But how was he to get to Tibet, a closed country? At first he went to Chungking, where he was accepted as “adviser” by local warlords looking for European loans and arms. That enabled him to revisit Europe and keep in touch with old friends. In November 1923, when Hitler, with Ludendorff beside him, carried out his Putsch in Munich, Trebitsch and Bauer, still excluded from Germany, were plotting again in Zurich. In 1924 Trebitsch returned to Europe and was “utterly ruined” in Monte Carlo by applying “an infallible system of winning money at baccarat.” Then, back in China, on October 27, 1925, he had a great experience which, he would say, changed his life: an “illumination,” a “mystical vision,” in the Astor House Hotel in Tientsin. At that moment, he afterward recorded, “I made the great renunciation, I quitted the world…. I forced the doors of the lunatic asylum open and—walked out.” He became a theosophist, retreated to a Buddhist monastery in Ceylon, and on his return to China went native, was ordained a monk, was raised to the rank of bodhisattva, declared himself an abbot, gave himself the title of “Venerable,” and prepared “to spend his last days in pious contemplation” in China.

So he had settled down at last! Or had he? Of course not. He could no more settle down as abbot Chao Kung than as curate of Appledore. There was so much to do. Fierce theosophical battles had to be fought with the rival heirs of Madame Blavatsky in Peking. There were intrigues with the (pro-Chinese) Panchen Lama against the (pro-Russian) Dalai Lama in Tibet. The British Empire had to be brought to heel. Messages of salvation, or vaticinations of ruin, had to be published to the world. China had to be saved, war abolished. And then, in Europe, President Hindenburg had granted an amnesty to the Kapp Putschists, so he could go to Munich and see the Buddhist professor Walter Persian. He had plans to found Buddhist monasteries in Europe. He even managed to sneak into England once, arriving from Canada with a troop of ten disciples. That was not a success; he was locked up in Liverpool for five days and then sent back to Canada. The disciples whom he picked up in Europe—on the Riviera or in Berlin—had a rough time. The victims of economic slump and spiritual disorientation, they followed this Pied Piper back to China and there found themselves reduced to personal servitude—the Ark of Salvation, says Mr. Wasserstein, had become a slave ship—and because he tyrannized over a handful of bewildered European émigrés in Shanghai, he presumed to speak for the whole Buddhist world. In an imperious telegram to King George V he protested against his treatment at Liverpool as an insult “to China which sent me and to millions of Buddhists throughout Asia who are solidly behind me.”

After his return from Liverpool in 1934, Trebitsch made no more journeys to Europe. The Germany that Hindenburg had reopened to the Kapp Putschists Hitler had closed again to Jews. But Trebitsch did not give up hope of controlling events or changing the course of history by the power of his will. In 1937, when the Japanese launched open war in China, he instructed the Chinese to free themselves from corrupting Western influence and surrender to the Japanese as “a chivalrous, well-intentioned and spiritually superior race.” In 1939, when Hitler declared war in Europe, he ordered the British, French, German, and Russian governments to resign. Otherwise, he said, “the Tibetan Buddhist Supreme Masters…will unchain forces and powers whose very existence are unknown to you and against whose operations you are consequently helpless.” When the governments did not comply with his orders, he planned to go to Tibet himself, presumably to be present at this great spiritual Putsch, and sought help from the German intelligence service. He was, he explained, a member of the influential Grand Council of Yellow Cap Lamas, and was authorized to speak for “the Sages of Tibet” who formed “a sort of unofficial world government.” He made similar proposals to the SS police attaché in Japan, Josef Meisinger, a brutal thug who, in Poland, had earned the title “the Butcher of Warsaw.”

Meisinger took the proposal seriously—Himmler, after all, like Trebitsch, had something of a fixation on Tibet. Trebitsch also suggested that he be sent to Berlin to meet the Führer. Such a meeting, he said, would have very dramatic consequences: “The instant he was alone with the Führer, three of the wise men of Tibet would appear out of the wall” as proof of his supernatural powers. Unfortunately the proposals were ill-timed, for just at that moment Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland, on the advice, it was said, of astrologers and with an elixir from a Tibetan lamasery in his pocket. The result, in Germany, was a crackdown on astrology, Tibetology, and all such ideas. That put an end to the abbot’s plan and enabled the German Foreign Office to put the SS in its place. “In the matter of Trebitsch Lincoln,” Meisinger was told, “you are not to proceed. Surely you are aware that he is a Jew.” That ended Trebitsch’s career in high politics. Two years later he died in Shanghai.

Such, in brief summary, was the career of Trebitsch Lincoln as reconstructed by Mr. Wasserstein. What, if anything, was the meaning to it? Had it any coherence, or was it merely a succession of disconnected exhibitionist adventures fired by fantasy and paranoia? In his brief epilogue, Mr. Wasserstein seeks to answer this question. He allows that Trebitsch’s career was completely sterile, that it achieved nothing and ruined those whom it most nearly touched. What holds it together is, first, a compulsive personality which immediately overpowered almost everyone subjected to it and enabled him to “burrow his way through to the core of three quite separate national élites…the British, the German, and the Chinese,” and, secondly, his religion, or rather religiosity.

Trebitsch,” says Mr. Wasserstein, “was in no sense a religious imposter…. It is difficult to conceive that an imposter would voluntarily undergo the excruciatingly painful head-branding” that was part of his Buddhist ordination. He began as a Christian missionary and ended as a Buddhist abbot. But there is no evidence that he had any kind of theology. In his examination for ordination as an Anglican deacon “he disgraced himself in nearly every paper” and was turned down. His Buddhist theology was evidently no better: his religion, says Mr. Wasserstein, “was not really Buddhism at all, but a syncretistic combination whose primary function was to serve…his deep-seated messianic drive”; and he compares him with the pseudomessiahs of Jewish history, Sabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank. We recall his message to the ex–Crown Prince recommending, as political models, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ.

Inevitably we think of the man whom he met so casually in Berlin in 1920 and sought more deliberately to meet in 1941, “the pseudo-messiah of the Third Reich.” Hitler too believed that he was a great thinker and a great statesman rolled into one. He too dominated and overpowered other men by his personality. The two men came from the same world: provincials of the Habsburg Empire, each formed by his metropolis, each failing his examination, each seeking fortune abroad, each exploiting the German catastrophe of 1918 and the ideological disarray that followed it. “It was a short walk,” says Mr. Wasserstein, from the Kapp Putsch to the Munich Putsch. The difference is that Hilter’s messianism was integrated with a real, if horrible, political ideology and a real, consistent program. Trebitsch’s was not. He had the psychology, but not the politics, to be a somnambulist dictator in the age that bred such monsters.