04 August 1915 – Change Artist

Today in the city of New York, police arrest Ignatius Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln, seen in the above photos. Charged with forging his documents upon leaving the United Kingdom, Trebitsch-Lincoln has been detained under information made available to the United States government by the Pinkerton Agency acting as cutout for His Majesty’s government in London. Their principal interest in Trebitsch-Lincoln is his new interest in espionage against the crown, but America lacks an espionage law under which to arrest him for that.

He has not gotten very far with his plan, at any rate. Although Trebitsch-Lincoln has unsuccessfully approached the Germans with various offers of services for cash, and easily won the endorsement of German propagandist George Sylvester Vierek, Germany’s North American spymaster Franz von Papen has kept his distance from Trebitsch-Lincoln in compliance with orders from Berlin.

Before the war, Trebitsch-Lincoln was elected to Parliament as a Liberal candidate on the his very first run for office, representing Darlington. A campaigner wily enough to turn xenophobia on its head in debate, he remains the only Hungarian citizen ever elected to Parliament. This retrospective article at the newspaper which helped launch his brief political career recounts the naturalized British citizen’s false claims to be a child prodigy who:

read ten hours a day with a tutor and studied privately for seven or eight hours besides. Eighteen out of the 24 hours of the day were spent by this child of 12 in study. He obtained the diploma for qualifying in all the subjects of the four years’ course, which included Greek, Latin, German, Hungarian literature, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, physics, geography, history, chemistry with poetry and general literature”.

Wow! The truth is more mundane. According to Bernard Wasserstein, to whom I am hugely indebted for his brilliant 1988 biography of Trebitsch, the boy showed no outstanding academic qualities as his brain tended to wander enormously. Indeed, Trebitsch’s father lost his fortune on a stock market gamble so it is doubtful that the family could have afforded a private tutor even if there was a prodigy in their midst.

His goose only seems cooked. Trebitsch-Lincoln’s career as a change artist is in fact far from over, and his arrest will feed all manner of curious fringe fictions as well as form a most extraordinarily curious life. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family, his biography will be fodder for the growing body of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories now percolating throughout the European world — a process whose effects on Jews in Eastern Europe already have eerie resemblance to later atrocities, but which has surprising roots around the continent. Like a moth to a flame, Trebitsch-Lincoln is compelled towards the annihilating zeitgeist with joy and abandon, eventually dying in China as a propagandist and acolyte for holy war. Along the way, he is cementing his place in the pop culture canon of infamous mountebanks and frauds.


The Echo’s 1909 endorsement of Trebitsch-Lincoln, who lasted less than a year in office. Via Chris Lloyd at The Northern Echo

Born Ignaz Trebitsch in the town of Paks, Lincoln was raised in a fervent household, but converted to Presbyterianism and later Anglicanism, emigrating to Canada as an outreach evangelist to Jews. But his position in Montreal declined when he was expelled from his McGill University theology program for an unauthorized engagement. Lincoln’s romantic entanglement faded, too, and in 1903 he pulled up stakes and sailed for England in a snit over his puny stipend. Quickly talking his way into the circles of the rich and powerful, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the silvertongued ‘Timothy Lincoln’ even schemed his way into Parliament.

But Britain’s amateur tradition of officeholding was unremunerative, so he relocated to Eastern Europe in search of a fortune in the burgeoning oil and financial sectors. Listed but not endorsed by the Echo in the following election, he was not returned to the House of Commons. Instead, he changed himself again, claiming a royal connection to inflate his self-salesmanship. War found him in Bucharest playing information-broker to Germans, Turks, and Bulgarians whilst trying to corner the Balkan oil market through an Anglo-Austrian cartel. He soon returned to Britain, briefly serving as a censor in the War Office, but offered his services as a spy to the British crown, which understandably declined to accept them.

Arriving this February in the land of reinvention, Trebitsch-Lincoln quickly works his way up to the top of the jailhouse hierarchy upon his detention, even penning a jumbled conspiracy theory gussied up as a whistleblower’s memoir.

My desire is to bring home the guilt and responsibility for this war to its real authors. The English people, as such, are innocent. They surely did not want the war. In the following pages they and the world will learn for the first time who dragged them into this war and why.

After publishing his screed, Ignaz/Ignatius Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln will serve out the war on the Isle of Wight as a prisoner of the British Empire. Released in 1919, he will return to Weimar Germany and court the rising fascist right, participate in the halting early organizing events, work with Ludendorff, and even meet Adolf Hitler before he is deported. But as a Jew, he is increasingly endangered in the Fuhrer’s Germany anyway, and decides to make the greatest change yet. After convincing a loose reactionary society known as the White International to entrust him with its membership list, he sells the list to various intelligence agencies in order to finance his getaway to the Far East.

Still not done, Trebitsch-Lincoln makes another religious conversion to Buddhism — and even serves as an abbot in Shanghai. Alternately offering to propagandize for or against the British Empire and for or against the Japanese Empire, he collaborates in the Japanese occupation of China, maintains contact with Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess, and undertakes propaganda activities that trend towards the fanatical. He even wins the endorsement of Hirohito as the 13th Dalai Lama, an offer connected to German intrigues in the Himalayas. While he is not the only person in Shanghai to die of abdominal issues in 1943, his letter to Hitler protesting the Holocaust feeds speculation that the Japanese occupation authority has poisoned him.

The subject of multiple biographies, the life of Ignaz Trebitsch is strange, enduring, and all the more intriguing in death.


The chameleon as a Buddhist monk in Shanghai, where he may or may not have died at Japanese hands as a favor to Hitler