His Brilliant Career

The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln

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

Trebitsch Lincoln
Trebitsch Lincoln; drawing by David Levine

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…

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