This Tale is part one of a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode
“Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, but fear too, is not barren of ingenious suggestions.”– Joseph Conrad, ‘The Secret Sharer’, from ‘Twixt Land and Sea (1909).
Hi folks welcome back. Before the break we’d left off with Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln’s sentencing to prison, not for his attempted espionage- in all fairness there is no evidence that he was guilty of more than being a wannabe in this respect – but of fraudulently obtaining large sums of money, by way of a forged note in the name of his former employer, the abolitionist Benjamin Seebohm Rountree. So, some of you may ask, how did he spend his time in jail? The answer of course he spent every waking hour free to him writing long, begging letters to his former friends in parliament begging them to be released. In 1918 the prison barred him from writing any more letters, parliament having grown tired of his correspondence and he had a nervous breakdown. Moved to the prison hospital, he alternated between deep depression and all out rage. All the while Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln fantasized about the revenge he would have on his persecutors once released from jail. In December 1919 he was stripped of his British citizenship, released from prison, and deported to the Netherlands. This was the first good luck he’d had in some time as Romanian forces occupied Budapest, Hungary at the time, and he was still wanted in Romania for fraud charges relating to his oil business. From the Netherlands he moved to Germany.
Ignaz joins the Far Right.
Now as many of you know Weimar Republic era Germany was a politically fraught place, with many political extremists; some furious over the alleged ‘stab in the back’ which ended WW1 others buoyed on by the fall of four major empires in the war. Some no doubt both. Many were vying to topple the new republic. Germany was hardly the only one, of 28 European democracies in existence just after WW1 very few would still be democracies by WW2 – but Revolution was in the air in Germany and this suited a bitter and twisted man like Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln. In Germany he turned to writing, for the far right wing paper Deutsche Zeitung. While there he made friends with Colonel Max Bauer, a former staffer to General Ludendorff. Bauer was a far right winger and anti Semite.
In 1920 Ignaz was sent to the Netherlands to meet with the son of the deposed Emperor, crown Prince Wilhelm in an effort to win his support for a revolution- but the crown Prince refused to meet with him. He came back from The Netherlands though claiming they had met. Much of his writing in this time was aimed at discrediting former Kaiser Wilhelm and praising the crown Prince.
In March 1920 he was involved in the Kapp Putsch, a short-lived revolution against the Weimar republic that was initially more successful than Hitler’s Munich beer hall putsch of 1923.
The Kapp Putsch
In February 1920 the British demanded 900 Germans involved in WW1 be handed over for war crimes. The German government refused to do this but did order two marine brigades containing some of these men, in Berlin to disband. This was the trigger for the putsch. Rather than disband, the brigades; led by Generals Ludendorff, Luttwitz, Colonel Bauer, Ignaz and a bureaucrat named Wolfgang Kapp prepared themselves for conflict and demanded the restoration of the monarchy under the crown prince. Luttwitz was immediately stood down and orders were given for his arrest, alongside the others. On 12th March the conspirators decided to march on Berlin and seize power and on the 13th they took over Berlin to virtually no resistance.
Now taking over a city and proclaiming it a state, and governing a state are two very different things. They had absolutely no idea how to do the latter.. Well bureaucrat Kapp, now Chancellor Kapp, may have had a few ideas but the generals disliked him and went out of their way to ignore anything he said. Ignaz was made director of foreign press affairs. The international community almost unanimously condemned the putsch, and the people of Berlin made their feelings clear by going on a general strike from day one of the regime. Things were not going well and none of these guys knew how to govern. Just five days after the Putsch, having lost control and fighting amongst themselves, Kapp resigned and fled to Sweden. General Luttwitz fled to Hungary. The Weimar republic sent in the army to retake the city and Ignaz fled Berlin under the name Wilhelm Ludwig.
The White International
Ignaz hid in plain sight for some time in Munich, where he became involved with a network of far right revolutionaries, that included several future Nazis. Sent to Hungary with Col Bauer by the network, to make connections with their far right, the two almost got arrested on a train headed to Austria. They only just managed to escape the German soldiers chasing them. They met with Hungarian and Russian fascists and began plotting, under the name the White International, to first seize power in their own countries, then the rest of Europe. By September 1920 Ignaz, perhaps tired of slumming it, or perhaps having come to the realization he was surrounded by thugs and gangsters who did not look kindly on Jews – one of the plotters a Major Stephani had made it known he wanted Trebitsch Lincoln dead- began to look for an escape route. One morning he packed his bags and fled in the wee small hours when no-one would notice, with a big pile of documents on the White International. Two thugs sent after him tracked him to Vienna Austria but didn’t kill him, as they needed to find out where the documents were hidden first.
Ignaz gave them the slip and fled the country. He tried to sell the White International documents to France, then Britain- without luck- then the Czechs. Czechoslovakia bought the documents, though they, suspecting much in the White International papers was fraudulent short paid him. Czech intelligence leaked the contents of the documents to the press. In 1921 Ignaz had moved back to Vienna, Austria, and attempted to sell more documents to the Japanese, USSR and USA. By this time his family had rejoined him, and they were desperately trying to get a visa for the USA… all the while terrified some death squad sent from the White International would find and kill him. The USA turned down his visa. While fighting the Czech government for payment in full he faked his own death and took on the name Thomas Lorincz.
Having had enough of him the Czech government contacted Austrian police, laying a complaint against Trebitsch Lincoln for attempting to con them. The police raided his hotel room, arresting him and finding multiple fake Id’s, documents linking him to the White International, Kapp putsch and other incidents, along with a pistol. In court he was found not guilty of fraud, and the Czech government were ordered to return the documents back to him. They did sentence him to time served for using false Id, and deported him from Austria in June 1921. Hiding out in Italy he, now living as retired British Colonel Thomas Longford, was yet again turned down for an American visa, but did manage to sneak into the USA as businessman Patrick Keelan. In 1922 the Americans arrested him. Rather than deport him, the Americans gave him the opportunity to leave of his own accord. He did soon after, making his way to China.
Ignaz finds warlords…
Having arrived in Japan in 1922 Ignaz jumped on a literal slow boat to China, intending to head to Szechwan, then cross the border into Tibet, where, in an article he wrote in 1925 he claimed
“my purpose was to start trouble in Central Asia”
This would be no mean feat. China at the time was in a state of massive unrest, with fractured groups running different parts of the country. Szechwan found itself in the middle of a bloody fight for control of the area by two rival warlords. On his journeys through the area, often posing as an Australian journalist, he seems not to have rubbed too many people up the wrong way. He spent time with a warlord, General Yang Sen, as an advisor.
In the war in the region Yang, a modernizer and a bit of a tyrant, would come out the winner. British reports of the aftermath stated they believed a modernizer in the area should have meant all kinds of lucrative contracts, but a Patrick Keelan- Ignaz- was poisoning Yang’s opinion of the British. Keelan was also trying to get a large investment from Yang to start his own business out there. By the time the British had id’ed him and sent warnings through diplomatic channels, Ignaz had disappeared. He showed up several months later in the company of a rival warlord, on a trip to Europe.
While in Europe he met with his friends Bauer and Ludendorff and almost got dragged into another putsch, this time in Munich… featuring one Adolf Hitler. Of course Ludendorff was a part of this putsch, but Bauer was in Switzerland arranging employment for himself with Ignaz’s employer General Ch’I, as a mercenary. Trebitsch Lincoln reunited also with his family, who sailed back to China under the surname Trautwein. When Bauer never showed up Ignaz returned to Europe, to find he had travelled to Moscow instead. On returning to China with the bad news he and General Ch’I decided to part ways too. Some time in late 1924 the family sailed for Europe. In 1925 he left his wife Margaret, and children, for good and set off again, for the USA. In New York he sold stories of his adventures in China to the New York World, the paper who published his spy stories of 1915.
Ignaz finds spirituality…
In August 1925, a now deeply depressed Trebitsch-lincoln returned to China. In the depths of his depression, he had an allegedly mystic experience in October 1925, finding Theosophy – a spiritualist movement drawing on Buddhism, the Kabballah, Egyptian imagery and other Eastern religions to create a new agey belief system – established in 1875 by the occultist Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky makes an interesting digression but I will save this for another episode…
Ignaz set off for Adyar in the South of India to study at the Theosophical society’s headquarters, however he got waylaid somewhere and in 1926 re-appears in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he was studying to become a Buddhist monk under the identity Dr Leo Tandler. He had become disillusioned with Theosophy on the ship over and de-camped on the way. His family were also in the news in 1926. They had returned to England and his son, Ignatius junior, had joined the army. Junior had a sideline in crime like his dad, in his case home invasions. While burglarizing a house he managed to wake the owner, Edward Richards. A fight ensued and Ignatius junior shot Richards dead. As he was a member of the military, Ignatius was tried by a military court – and was sentenced him to death. Ignaz was granted a visa to see his son one last time, if he could get there before the execution, but got there too late.
In the Netherlands speaking with reporters it was clear Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln had taken leave of his senses somewhat. He claimed while in the Far East he had developed supernatural powers and had telepathically communicated with his son regularly on the way over. Rather than being grief ridden he spent most of the interview discussing how he would like to bury the hatchet with Britain and return for good. Soon after, however, he reappears in historical records trying to get into Tibet. He was refused entry.
He reappears in 1927 as a Buddhist preacher in San Francisco, USA. In late 1927 he shows up in Hong Kong, from there trying and failing to get a visa to enter India, Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Reports surfaced in November he was in Peking giving public lectures and petitioning the Panchen Lama for permission to enter Tibet.
In 1930 he briefly returned to Europe to publish another autobiography… In 1931 Ignaz is ordained a Buddhist monk, taking on the name Chao Kung. Kung settled in Shanghai. In 1932, as hostilities increased between China and Japan, Kung wrote a rambling booklet calling for all wars to end, though in part another semi-biographical piece. With the money raised by the sale of this book he set off for Europe in 1933 looking to establish a Buddhist monastery in Germany. He gave a few lectures but ultimately failed, when Hitler’s rise to power saw a hardening of attitudes towards him and he was again sent packing. He, however didn’t come alone. Remember his Canadian adventures as a protestant missionary where he could not convert a single Jew? 13 Europeans followed Chao Kung back to Shanghai, taking residence with him. He promoted himself to Abbot to celebrate.
He tried, again, to return to Germany in January 1934, writing to Adolf Hitler directly for permission. It is unlikely the letter was actually read by Hitler, although the request was declined by the foreign ministry, citing his Jewish origins as the reason. In February the Belgians granted a visa to him, under the name Chao Kung – possibly unaware of his back story. He had to stop in Liverpool, England on the way however, and they deported him and his followers back to China. Several followers decided to part ways with the Abbot. On the way back he tried to get into Japan, but was sent packing from there too.
One of the departed followers gave insights into life following our abbot – telling of extreme hardship and poverty, 16 hour working days where you were rarely allowed to speak, a meal a day and constant bullying from the Abbot. A picture emerged of Trebitsch as a paranoid megalomaniac who acted like he had millions of followers rather than a handful, and who believed the powers of Europe were conspiring against him to thwart his mission of peace.
He began writing letters to, and paying for ads in Chinese newspapers to both complain about his treatment in Europe, and to threaten Christian missionaries living in China. Writers in the paper fired back at him, stating his past fraudulent behavior and involvement with fascist groups, and not his Buddhist faith, was responsible for his rejection in Europe. All the same his letters caught the eyes of a few wealthy Shanghai residents, who started financially backing him. Trebitsch aka Kung used money gifted to him by his new backers to start an organization, The League of Truth, whose logo bore a reversed swastika and whose aims were to be
“For Truth, justice, kindness, against lies, injustice, hatred everywhere and in everything”.
The general tenor of the pamphlets was that the world was in a mess, in no small part because Europe would not allow Abbot Chau Kung in. In 1936 he wrote of an impending apocalypse, because the “very elements are revolting”, at the evil that had taken over the world. Nothing particularly remarkable about this, there were clear indicators another world war was around the corner.
In 1936 he moved to Tientsin, publishing a final book, Dawn or Doom of Humanity in 1937. He called out all of humanity as stupid and called on the world’s governments to change their ways. Soon after Japan invaded and occupied much of China including Tientsin. Trebitsch wrote a pro Japanese pamphlet soon after, praising them for their treatment of the Chinese – which if you have read anything on the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and the atrocities carried out, does seem rather laughable. He called on the Chinese to
“free yourselves from the corrupting influence of the Kuomintang and Soviet: liberate yourselves from the selfish influence of Occidental nations, and you will find that Japan is your true friend, ready to help you”.
While Trebitsch may not have been completely mad in stating the factional wars between the communists and Kuomintang had been ugly and weakened the nation, and the occidental empire builders- the great European colonizers -were a blight on Asia. Yet again he had proved himself treasonous, and not to be trusted.
“be not deceived a new empire has risen in the world – the greater Japanese empire. This new empire will surely bring about more just, more tolerable, more peaceful conditions on this earth, than the Christians have done. Let China abandon this futile, suicidal and wholly mistaken amenity to Japan, and peace and prosperity will ensue”.
Now I should mention this lackey-ism may have been driven by money. His patronage had dried up and his new monastery was going broke after the Japanese invasion. This would hardly be the first time we have seen him running with the hares and the hounds for cash. It has been suggested the Japanese were paying him to write pro Japanese propaganda.
British intelligence responded angrily to this, their final note on on the dossier of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln was
“I think the only comment I can make on this is ! ! !”
His pamphlet was commented on in a New York Times editorial saying about him “now he wears a Japanese coat. But he can turn it very quickly”. Soon after writing his treacherous pamphlet he wrote a letter to the regent of Hungary and former ally in the White International, Admiral Horthy, begging to be allowed to return to Hungary. He sent the letter via an emissary, Margot Markuse, a Latvian national and his favorite nun at the monastery, also known as Tao Lo. Hungary refused re-entry. In December 1937 the Panchen Lama died. The Dalai Lama had passed 5 years earlier and neither had been replaced yet. In the midst of this reports came through in 1938 Trebitsch was on his way to Tibet, claiming to be the reincarnation of both Lama.
This may be apocryphal however, as it seems in March 1938 he had moved back to Shanghai, now with only two followers. He spent the rest of his life moving between cheap accommodation and a YMCA, where he would eventually die. In 1939, just before Christmas, it was recorded he made a public plea for world peace, and for all governments, but the Finnish and Japanese, to resign immediately. He threatened if the governments refused to do so there would be terrible consequences. The Tibetan supreme masters would unleash forces never seen before on the earth. In 1940 he made another proclamation, that he was headed to the USA to discuss peace with president Franklin Roosevelt. America responded that he would be denied entry. At this point the world press, just like MO5 had had enough of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
One final act- Abbot Chou Kung, Nazi.
Reports of his final years come mostly via German intelligence. In 1941 the Nazis took him on, now aged 61, as a spy. Their plan was to send the Abbot to Tibet to turn Tibetans pro-Nazi, and anti the Allies – then to set up a radio station which could be used to transmit pro Nazi propaganda across to India, undermining the British.
India was under British rule till after the war, in 1947 and still considered the jewel in the British crown. There was, at the time a great deal of hatred towards the British among swathes of the population. Tibet may also have been amenable. At this point the greatest European adventurer to explore Tibet was a rabidly anti-Semitic pro Nazi Swedish explorer called Sven Hedin. Indian politician Subhas Chandra Bose had similarly fled from India via Afghanistan, to Nazi Germany, where he began pumping out pro Nazi propaganda. Setting up something a little closer to home did seem a smart move to the Nazis. German intelligence wrote to Berlin asking for the resources to put his plan into action but there was never a reply.
While waiting Trebitsch did what he always did when impatient, went off the script in a mad way. He arranged a sit down with Colonel Joseph Meisinger of German Intelligence to request a sit down with Hitler himself. Trebitsch claimed he was an envoy for an unofficial world government based in Tibet, and he would like to make peace with the Nazis. He promised once he was alone with Herr Hitler, three Tibetan wise men would materialize out of the wall as proof of his great supernatural powers. Remarkably, rather than dismissing him as a nut Meisinger wrote to the Gestapo singing his praises and requesting the sit down with Hitler. The consul General also wrote a letter back, warning the Gestapo that Trebitsch was a small fish in Buddhist circles, and not to be trusted. Both letters ended up on the desk of foreign minister Von Ribbentrop, who refused Meisinger’s request. After this the Germans distanced themselves from Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
In 1942 British newspapers however did publish a story claiming Trebitsch was in Tibet broadcasting propaganda to India in a slightly Toyko Rose-ish manner. This was not the case but somehow the story of the plan had leaked. Truthfully he went quiet until just prior to his death, giving one final newspaper interview in July 1943. He talked about his life, and how after the war he would like to re-settle Jews from Europe on undeveloped Buddhist land just outside of Shanghai. On 6th October 1943 he was admitted to hospital with intestinal problems, which required an operation. He died in post operative care.
Well folks there we go – a long, shaggy dog tale of a life, piquaresque in it’s stumbling nature. Our protagonist began life a respectable middle class Jewish kid, and shambled through life a petty thief, missionary, politician, oil tycoon, fraudster, spy, far right revolutionary, and finally an Eastern holy man with messianic aspirations. I personally wonder if he was sociopathic, with his short attention span, need for drama and clear criminal versatility…not to mention his affairs in New York, superficial glibness which served him throughout life – if not quite well enough- and blatant self promotion at the news of his son’s death. It does appear whatever his personality disorders may have been, later in life he suffered from deep depressions and some kind of progressive mental health ailment.
I also have no doubt at times in Britain the young MP Lincoln did face horrendous discrimination – much as I want to laugh at the thought of him sitting across from some high ranking Nazi explaining some scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, there is something sad in his decline.
For decades he was a nuisance to several government departments across several countries. He clearly made for good copy for numerous newspapers too as his life took on one unlikely twist after another. He also mixed in some very dangerous company and probably lead to the financial ruin of more than a few people over his life. I do want to find some redeeming quality to Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln, he is after all the protagonist in our picaresque tale, but in the end I find myself telling this tale cause he was an interesting guy with an insanely unusual life.
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.