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Change Artist: One Man's Long, Strange Trip Around the World in Search of His 'True Self'
A tale of modernity and 'authenticity'
“Two strains of mind and action have always been in conflict in my life,” Ignatius Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln wrote in the opening of his dubious jailhouse memoir, Revelations of an International Spy. “In one of them predominates the quiet fervor of the mystic and the imaginative sensitiveness of the artist. In the other, craving for excitement, passion for deduction and analysis, and love of applause overshadow all other leadings.” The year was 1916. Styling himself “a diplomatic spy,” the 37-year old Hungarian-born Trebitsch Lincoln had been arrested on charges of forgery, and was fighting extradition to the United Kingdom, where he was wanted on charges of fraud. As the United States had no domestic law against espionage against third party nations within American borders, fraud was the charge that London could use to extradite him.
“My desire is to bring home the guilt and responsibility for this war to its real authors,” he claimed in the New York World Magazine, echoing populist antiwar narratives down the ages. “The English people, as such, are innocent. They surely did not want the war.” He was ready to name names. “In the following pages,” Trebitsch Lincoln promised, “they and the world will learn for the first time who dragged them into this war and why.” He then named the late King Edward VII and his advisers in a serialized screed against “the hidden moves on the international chessboard” by powerful interests acting in secret. Trebitsch Lincoln had learned the details of the “conspiracy on foot” from a “cryptic Scot,” he said, and confirmed them during his five-year career in “Secret Service work.”
It was all baloney. Fast-forward to October 1943, when Trebitsch-Lincoln died in Shanghai as ‘Abbot Chao Kung,’ a Buddhist monk and cult guru with his own monastery and a European evangelizing mission. The circumstances of his death are murky, but we know from The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln, a 1988 biography by Bernard Wasserstein in History Today, that the attendees at the funeral were “a cosmopolitan crew” that “included senior figures in the Chinese Buddhist monastic hierarchy, various European expatriate advernturers, an agent of the Japanese Kempeitai (secret police), and the chief of the Gestapo in the Far East.” His development as an enemy of the British Empire blossomed into holy war. His mysterious end in Shanghai “reflects the larger travail of a whole new world on the road to nowhere,” Wasserstein writes. In the pay of Axis powers at the end, Trebitsch Lincoln had “thrust his services upon his employers.” Yet he “cannot be categorised as an ideological Nazi. In the last resort he was not really a patriot for anybody — except perhaps, towards the end, for his twisted concept of Nirvana.”
Wasserstein detects manic depression in his subject. Noting that Trebitsch Lincoln had a gift for languages and a glib charm, Wasserstein could now add a possible case of Cluster B issues.
Not that he was untalented. “His strange achievement in penetrating three very different political establishments — those of Edwardian British Liberalism, inter-war German right-wing nationalism, and Chinese Buddhism — requires some larger explanation” than mere con artist, Wasserman suggests. “Perhaps Trebitsch should be seen as a characteristic product of the age of the dissolution of empires, an age of distorted values in which societies eagerly swallowed the quack remedies offered by adventurers.”
A world of possibilities was opened up through the steamship. At the end of his career, Trebitsch Lincoln fits “into a larger historical pattern: that of the expatriate adventurer in early republican China.” A mystic experience in Tientsin led to a Buddhist conversion. “After studying Buddhist texts for several years he was initiated as a monk, and, in an excruciatingly painful ritual, had the twelve spokes of the Buddhist ‘wheel of becoming’ branded in his head.” It was his fourth religion.
Born to a Jewish family in Budapest, he had studied the Torah, found Christianity in London, and spent time in Canada as a missionary, transitioning from Presbyterian to Anglican. By his own accounting, Trebitsch Lincoln had excelled at every theological study, earning applause for his acumen. “His missionary career is of next to no importance but the traces it left in the churches’ archives in Canada give a fascinating foretaste of Trebitsch’s later exploits as a con-man, revolutionary and spy,” Wasserstein writes. Put another way, he was good at seeming and sounding smarter than he was.
Just as Trebitsch Lincoln elides his criminal record in Hungary that led him to London, and the part where he was expelled from his McGill University theology program for an unauthorized engagement, he blames the weather in Canada, rather than his dissatisfaction with the small remittance he received, for causing him to leave his supposedly immense missionary success behind in North America. “In 1903 my health broke down and I was compelled to take a long holiday, which I spent in Germany,” he claimed. Now he approached Archbishop of Canterbury, who was so impressed that he gave Trebitsch Lincoln a minor clerical appointment.
The future Dalai Lama lasted fourteen months. According to Wasserstein, the archbishop “noted that he showed ‘a strange lack of knowledge’; he failed the examination miserably and soon afterwards resolved to abandon his clerical ambitions altogether.” Boredom was the real problem. “Life in a Kentish village did not make great demands upon my resources,” Trebitch Lincoln sniffed in admission. Changing his name by deed poll to Ignatius Timotheus Trebich Lincoln in 1903, he looked for a new mark.
This time, he approached millionaire Quaker Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, who gave him a job surveying “land tenure systems in various parts of Europe” as part of an anti-poverty research program. Rowntree was so impressed with his new personal secretary that he backed Trebisch-Lincoln when he ran for Parliament in 1916.
As part of the process, Trebitsch Lincoln was naturalized to British citizenship. When he was released from a British prison after the end of the war, his citizenship was stripped, and he was deported back to Europe.
In the meantime, he had briefly been the first Hungarian-born MP. The Darlington seat had been held by the same family of Conservatives for so long that it was known as a ‘family seat.’ While it is impossible to diagnose the demographics of the district, his unexpected and narrow victory seems like a populist revolt against class privilege. Trebitsch Lincoln certainly seemed to think his election had been the most historic election ever held. “Where they, the Englishmen, failed, I, the foreigner, succeeded,” he waxed in self-praise over his predecessor Liberal Party candidates. “Darlington has never seen scenes like the one on the declaration of the poll, announcing my victory.”
The Northern Echo, a newspaper which had endorsed him in this election, quickly lost enthusiasm after. “Trebitsch used a reverse-zenophobia [sic] campaign,” editor Chris Lloyd explained in that paper after a century had elapsed. “His opponents highlighted his Hungarianess,” but in debate with his opponent “Trebitsch cleverly … said that the sitting Darlington MP, Herbert Pike Pease, was promoting protection — putting import duties on goods coming into the country.”
Mr Pike Pease would argue that this was to protect British jobs by making foreign imports very expensive; Mr Trebitsch Lincoln argued that the same policy was pursued in Germany where it made all goods so expensive that the average working German was reduced to eating his pet dog. And no one wanted to be reduced to the level of those nasty dog-eating Germans, said the candidate with the thick foreign accent. So Trebitsch cleverly turned the foreigness question onto Mr Pike Pease, and won the seat by 29 votes.
He did not distinguish himself in office, however, deciding instead to stand down during the December 1910 snap election. It wasn’t the caricature in Punch that did it, or the reception his unexpectedly weak speeches got during his brief term, or the criticism of his constant trips to Europe, or his lost support in the press, but the fact that “he was virtually bankrupt” which drove Trebitsch Lincoln out of office, according to Wasserstein.
Rather than get a job, Trebitch Lincoln had started an oil company and moved to Romania, where “the dribble of petroleum he produced did not even cover his operating expenses, and by 1913 his entire business empire had collapsed utterly.” War in 1914 found Trebitsch Lincoln a “failed missionary, unfrocked curate, discredited politician, and bankrupt businessman,” so he “turned as a last resort to the career in which he was to achieve notoriety — international espionage.”
On this final point, Wasserman is incorrect. Trebitsch Lincoln would have reacted to the globetrotting job opportunities of wartime clandestine service with glee. He would have expected standards of vetting to decline. He would have sensed an opening for grift.
Chapter I of Trebitsch Lincoln’s blustery book is about his arrest in New York. His self-report would have us believe that he was both smarter and better-informed than the British officials interviewing him in detention. Chapter II is a recounting of the diplomatic intrigues preceeding the outbreak of World War I. Chapter III is a fantasy straight out of James Bond featuring Trebitsch Lincoln in the role of high-stakes gambler, seducing a great beauty into his scheme to learn the secrets of European powers in a lavish French casino. During scenes complete with high-stakes cards turning over to dramatic applause from onlookers, he learns the details of the supposed conspiracy to foment war. He does nothing to stop said war.
The rest of the chapters are simply conspiracy fodder. He is being held against his will in New York, Trebitsch Lincoln says, because he knows too much. Nothing that he ‘knows’ in his narrative is an actual secret, of course. Rather, his ‘secrets’ are all opinions about facts that were already known to the American public in 1916, dabbed with a false patina of spy drama and a fairy tale that connects him to all events by proxy.
Trebitsch Lincoln managed to escape a New York jail for a few weeks, making several statements to the press while he was on the lam before he was recaptured. He was deported to the UK when the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.
His turn to treason hinged on his ego. With the outbreak of war and his fortunes in the European war zone vanished, during August 1914 Trebitsch Lincoln approached British intelligence to offer his services in exchange for cash. He was not without skills, but he was certainly without portfolio, so London declined his offer. This spurning seems to have sparked resentment against his adopted country. Treason was the salve for his wounded ego.
Rebuffed, Trebitsch Lincoln visited neutral Holland to offer his services to the Germans. His plan was to return to London and try again for an appointment, only this time he would succceed somehow and become a mole inside British intelligence. His amateur movements were visible in London, so when he returned he found himself not only blocked from entering British service, but already under investigation. Fleeing to New York on what he avowed was the very last steamship before the dragnet closed in, Trebitsch Lincoln ended the war imprisoned on the Isle of Wight.
During his sojourn in the United States until his arrest, Trebitsch Lincoln approached the German embassy offering his clandestine services again. Franz von Papen, Germany’s spymaster in Washington, had been warned about Trebitsch Lincoln and declined. The confidence man does not seem to have felt any sleight. Ineffective and unsophisticated themselves, von Papen as well as his spies and saboteurs were declared persona non grata and deported themselves. Later, in 1932, von Papen would play a key role in making Adolf Hitler the chancellor of Germany, becoming Hitler’s vice-chancellor during his first two years in power.
Trebitsch Lincoln was undeterred. Wasserstein observes that “his first essays in espionage, farcical in nature, thus ended in anti-climax,” but the punishment redoubled his impulse for vengeance. Now more determined to destroy the British Empire than before, Trebitsch Lincoln emerged in Wiemar Germany as a member of the right-wing government of Dr. Wolfgang Kapp, who seized power in Berlin for five days during 1920. Trebitsch Lincoln even met Hitler on the last day of the putsch. Der Führer would recall the chance encounter with the famous fraud more than once in the years to come.
Fleeing after the failure of the putsch, Trebitsch Lincoln joined a group called the White International in Hungary, becoming their chief liaison with the government there. When he learned that militants were planning his murder, however, Trebitsch Lincoln once again “fled, this time taking with him the entire archive of the White International which its leaders had unwisely entrusted to him for its safekpeeing.”
He offered to sell the archive to intelligence agencies. Britain and France passed; the government of Czechoslovakia was interested. However, in his typical fasion, Trebitch Lincoln argued over the price tag, and ended up getting arrested for high treason in Vienna. Ultimately he was acquitted of that charge, but was convicted of forging passports using several false names, which was among his favorite crimes.
Clearly, the ever-changing identity of Trebitsch Lincoln was still quite fluid. This time, he would go farther than ever in search of his new, ‘true’ self.
“In the early 1920s he served as a political adviser and arms merchant for three different warlords involved in the civil war in northern China,” Wasserstein writes. This phase of Chinese history was passing, however, and Trebitsch Lincoln’s attention was diverted by yet another new religion. The new ‘abbot’ now became a textbook cult leader who “gained almost total intellectual, pyschological, and emotional dominance” over his victims, “such that his authority seemed to them to carry divine sanction.”
Of course, in keeping with his new role as cult guru, he also required them to sign over all their worldly possessions, and he seduced all the pretty nuns, leading two of them to eventually take their own lives over their affairs with him. “At one level Trebitsch betrayed almost everybody who had the misfortune to come into contact with him,” Wasserstein writes.
His own family (he had a wife and four sons) head the list of the deceived. He abandoned them and during the Second World War he worked for an Axis victory while one of his sons was tortured by the Japanese on the island of Java, another son was killed in action as a British officer on a beach in Normandy, and one of his brothers, who had remained in his native Hungary, was deported by the Nazis and murdered in Auschwitz. Trebitsch was probably not aware of these individual tragedies. But he understood only too well with whom he was dealing.
As the Japanese ‘Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ embraced Shanghai, Trebitch Lincoln returned to politics, and to defamation of the British Empire as a profession. “In 1937 he enlisted in the Japanese case as an anti-British propagandist, issuing pamphlets denouncing British imperialism in the Far East and acclaiming the progressive and peaceful intentions of the Japanese.” Emperor Hirohito declared Trebitsch Lincoln to be the 13th Dalai Lama. With the world at war in 1939 he offered to record broadcasts for the Nazis, being a ‘good ally’ to the end.
In 1941, however, Rudolph Hess took his strange flight to Britain, parachuting into Scotland with two vials of supposed holy water from Tibet. The Himalayan region had become the fanciful origin point of Aryan supremacy for an esoteric faction of the Nazi Party, and the abbot had endorsed the new mythology. Everyone associated with Tibetanism was suddenly arrested or suspect in Berlin after Hess. Among the many conspiracy theories surrounding Trebitch Lincoln’s murky demise is that the Japanese poisoned him as a favor to Hitler. Another holds that he faked his own death and made his way to Shangri-la. Even dead, his legend inflated.
Each iteration was an act of mimickry. Born Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, transforming into Ignatius Timothy Trebitsch Lincoln, and then transforming into Abbot Chao Kung, the same person was always developing a new persona that felt more ‘authentic’ to him than the last one. None of them were the ‘authentic’ person, or the ‘true’ Trebitch Lincoln, however; all of them were the real Trebitch Lincoln trying to become someone else, someone bigger.
He did not want to be the son of a bankrupt. Trebitsch Lincoln wanted to be someone important and powerful and revered. Money was secondary to image for Trebitsch Lincoln. To such a person, secrets are power. His yearning to possess the wartime secrets of 1914 was his yearning to possess the secrets of the inner temples. Trebitsch Lincoln wanted to be the person holding the keys to the great wide war, the whole world, the entire universe. Surely his innate genius, his special powers of observation and discernment, deserved praise and worship from those lessers around him.
A just world would recognize his innocence, his perfection of mind and spirit. Trebitsch Lincoln cast aside his worldly life to become a divine among men so that we could all see the real him, and change ourselves accordingly. He was a change artist, inscribing change upon himself in order to change us, and the world.
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