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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.

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