The annals of espionage and counter-espionage offer few stranger cases than that of Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln. He was born as Ignácz Trebitsch to a Hungarian Orthodox Jewish family on this day in 1879, but converted to Christianity soon after his arrival in London in 1897 (the start of many years’ international wanderings). With the zeal of the convert he joined the grandly named London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews and was sent to proselytise among his ancestral people in Canada.
Once back in the UK, Trebitsch’s next predictably unpredictable move was to stand for, and win, a seat in the House of Commons in 1910 under the name Timothy Lincoln, though his political career was hardly distinguished by greatness and he didn’t contest the seat at the following election.
But having got the hang of multiple identities, Trebitsch-Lincoln, as he now called himself, offered himself to the British secret services, who rejected him and sent him into the arms of the Germans. However the British became aware of his activities and extradited him in 1916 from the US, where he had fled, and sentenced him to three years’ prison. This only served to strengthen his pro-German sentiments.
In 1920 Trebitsch-Lincoln somehow became entangled in an ill-fated, short-lived putsch in Berlin, at which time he met Adolf Hitler. While Mein Kampf had not yet been published, the Hungarian Jew could hardly have been ignorant of the Austrian agitator’s views.
Throughout the 1920s Trebitsch-Lincoln bumbled around Europe, got expelled from Austria for high treason and ended up in China, where he became a Buddhist monk under the name Chao Kung. In time he became convinced that he was the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, but didn’t find anyone else who shared his conviction.
With a new world war approaching, Trebitsch-Lincoln was back to his double-dealing ways, spying and plotting for whoever would pay him, offering his services to the Nazis once war had broken out, a proposal which was taken surprisingly seriously before finally being rejected. Trebitsch-Lincoln had no-one left to double-cross and he ended his days in the Shanghai YMCA, dying in 1943.
While fascinating, it’s hard to know what to make of such a life, filled as it was with pathological levels of intrigue and trouble-making. While steeped in the political currents of the first half of the 20th century, throughout his manifold, contradictory allegiances, Trebitsch-Lincoln stood for nothing but himself.
For an insight into the method in this maverick’s madness, read this excellent essay by Bernard Wasserstein, author of The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln.