At times in his life, he was an actor, arms dealers, oil speculator, British Liberal MP, vicar and a German spy. At prayer he moved from Judaism to Presbyterianism, ending up as a Buddhist abbot monk.
And along the way, he possibly saved the life of Adolf Hitler.
But above all else, Trebitsch was a tremendously likeable, intelligent and credible rogue. How else to explain the way he fooled so many of the people for so much of the time?
Born Ignáz Thimoteus Trebitzsch in Hungary in 1879, his large Jewish family moved to Budapest in 1895 and aged sixteen he enrolled at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art. He lied to get in and dropped out after a year, both hallmarks of his enduring character traits.
At the age of eighteen, he was on the run from the police after stealing a gold watch. Trebitsch was forced to flee Hungary and so began a life of almost constant itinerancy. As his biographer, Bernard Wasserstein, puts it: Travel for Trebitsch was not a source of amusement or intellectual enrichment; it was a disease.
He travelled to London where he met the Reverend Lypshytz of the Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews. Although an Orthodox Jew himself, the prospect of a regular income persuaded Trebitsch to convert to Christianity and embark on a short career as a Presbyterian missionary. He was sent to Canada where he squandered large amounts of the society’s cash without achieving a single convert.
It was while in Montreal that he met and married Margarethe Kahlor, the daughter of a German sea captain. The couple returned to England where she presented Trebitsch with four sons while he disposed of her inheritance.
Trebitsch served as curate at Appledore in Kent adding ‘Lincoln’ to his name by deed poll to make him sound more English.
Now styling himself I T T Lincoln, he failed exams for the priesthood in 1904 and was in need of employment. Fortune led him into the path of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, the confectionery magnate, Quaker philanthropist and Liberal grandee. Charming as ever, Trebitsch convinced Rowntree to appoint him as the research assistant for a book he was writing about poverty in Belgium.
The work involved frequent trips to the continent which suited Trebitsch‘s gift as a linguist and making use of Rowntree’s name and money, he travelled Europe living the high life and supplementing his income by moonlighting as a German double agent. Or at least so he later claimed.
Meanwhile, Rowntree was completely taken in by Trebitsch and so impressed by his energy that he decided that he was just the sort of person that British politics needed. Using his position with the Liberal Party, he got Trebitsch adopted as the candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Darlington in the 1910 general election.
Naturalisation papers were hurried through and Trebitsch stood as Mr Ignatius Lincoln. He wasn’t short of influential support and was endorsed by both Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George.
The sitting Unionist MP was Herbert Pike Pease whose family founded the Stockton and Darlington Railway and practically owned the town so it came as a complete surprise to everyone when Trebitsch won the seat, even earning him a cartoon in Punch magazine.
Trebitsch took his seat in Parliament, but as MPs were then unpaid he soon ran up considerable debts and when a second election was called later that year he stood down, pleading insolvency.
Thus he was free to set himself up as a serial fraudster. Using Rowntree for financial backing, Trebitsch set up several public corporations to exploit oil wells in central Europe. He raised large amounts of money on the stock market for companies which all collapsed, ruining his investors in the process. Desperate for cash, he turned to forgery to raise further loans but by 1914 he was bankrupt again.
As an Austro-Hungarian with a German wife, Trebitsch found himself in a difficult position on the outbreak of the First World War. He was also worried that his forgeries might come to light and concluded that his best option was to become a spy for the highest bidder.
The British weren’t interested so Trebitsch took himself to Holland to try his luck with the Germans. They weren’t entirely convinced but decided to give him a go. He returned to England where he immediately offered to sell German secret codes to the British – codes that he didn’t possess.
As the negotiations for the sale of the codes dragged out, his past did indeed catch up with him and Trebitsch had to pack in a hurry to avoid arrest for fraud. He left for the US where he sold his largely fictional story of British MP turned German master-spy to the newspapers.
Unsurprisingly, this annoyed the British authorities and Trebitsch was arrested and extradited by the Americans. While awaiting trial in London he was given a job in the censor’s office at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, checking mail written in German.
The work involved journeys back and forth from prison and Trebitzsch used his considerable charms to befriend his guards, persuading them that it would be a good idea to stop off at a pub for a drink one evening. While they ordered at the bar, Trebitsch went to the toilet and escaped out of the window.
When Trebitsch was released in 1919 he was stripped of his British nationality and deported to Europe and headed for Germany where he managed to get himself appointed as the press officer for the extreme, right-wing, anti-Semitic group plotting to overthrow the Weimar Republic.
It was in this role that in one way or another he managed to save the skin of the young Adolf Hitler who had flown to Berlin to join the coup. One version is that Hitler was put off by Trebitsch‘s distinctly Jewish features, while another account has Trebitsch saving Hitler’s life by putting him on a plane as he was about to be arrested.
In any event, the putsch took place in 1920 when 6,000 German naval commandos marched on Berlin. The occupation was to last only a week, but in that time Trebitsch acted as Minister of Information and so he is the only former British MP to serve in a German government!
With the revolt crushed, Trebitsch somehow escaped to Munich and became embroiled with various extreme right-wingers in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, including the alliance of pro-monarchist, anti-communists known as ‘White International’.
They were rabidly anti-Semitic of course and it is testament to Trebitsch‘s powers of persuasion that they trusted him. More fool them because he then betrayed their plans to the Czechs which was about the only government left in Europe that might believe him.
Trebitsch then tried his luck with the fascists of Italy, but his reputation went before him and he was thrown out of the country and he was running out of places to go. Time magazine called him ‘the man no country wanted’.
Somewhere far away seemed the best bet, so he opted for China where he called himself Puk Kusati. There he dabbled in false passports and acted as an arms dealer for three different warlords.
By now nothing in Trebitsch’s life should come as a surprise, but he had another one up his sleeve – in 1925 he had a major religious revelation and converted to Buddhism.
He became a monk under the name Chao Kung and rose to the rank of Bodhisattva after six years of study and meditation and became the first westerner to found his own Buddhist monastery in the East. Not that he left his old habits behind entirely – initiates were required to hand over all their worldly goods to him while Trebitsch passed the time by seducing nuns.
The Second World War brought Trebitsch back into the mainstream of events. Shanghai was the base for the Gestapo in the Far East and he approached the bureau chief and offered to bring every Buddhist over to the Axis cause in exchange for a face-to-face meeting with Hitler where he would prove himself by conjuring three Tibetan sages out of thin air.
Rudolph Hess and von Ribbentrop thought this was a tremendous idea and the meeting might have taken place except that Hess fell out of favour after he flew to Scotland in 1941. (Among his possessions were two vials of sacred Tibetan liquid)
What happened next is harder to explain. Trebitsch (as Chao Kung) wrote to Hitler to denounce the Holocaust. It was out of character and was to be his own death warrant. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1943 Trebitsch was arrested and died a few days later of a ‘stomach complaint’ having been poisoned on the instructions of the Nazi high command.
Quite a life I think you’ll agree – and these are just the edited highlights. As the QI Book of the Dead puts it, ‘the very least one can say of him is that he never wasted a day’. Somehow the world is a duller place without the likes of Trebitsch.