Not long ago, my mother asked me, “Son, did those things you write about really happen?” My reply was a slightly bemused, “Yeah.” I understood why she might have her doubts. The town I grew up in western North Carolina – and where she still lives – is a long way from Eastern Europe, both geographically and psychologically. Nothing in my childhood experience, at least from a superficial standpoint, pointed me towards a future interest in Eastern Europe. There were no people of Eastern European descent in our immediate world. My mother had no idea that I became infatuated with the Eastern Bloc due to the Cold War, the Olympic Games and stumbling upon reference works on the Eastern Front of World War I in high school.
This led to what has turned into a lifelong fascination with the region, manifesting itself in a marriage, multiple trips to the Eastern Europe each year and an ever growing library of history and travel books on Eastern Europe. I am sure my mother still thinks it is bizarre that her youngest son is fascinated with a region that we as a family were not connected to in any tangible way. In retrospect, I should have answered my mother’s question by stating what I really believe, that anything is possible. If she had replied with skepticism, I could have given her an Eastern European example which proves that “anything really is possible. The life of Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln.
The Art of Impossibility – A Fraudulent Life
I was having dinner in what had once been the garden of the Karolyi Palace in Budapest with the late historian and raconteur Norman Stone and author Michael O’Sullivan. During our conversation, I asked Stone whether he had heard of Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln. At the mere mention of the name, Stone suddenly roared to life as he recounted this notorious confidence man’s exploits in detail. This was quite a feat considering the amount of alcohol Stone had already consumed in the past hour. Keeping the story straight concerning Trebitsch-Lincoln’s life is a near impossible task. This was a man who assumed multiple personas and a variety of names while ingratiating himself with almost everyone he met. If character is destiny, then Trebitsch-Lincoln was the ultimate character, a man destined for depravity, demagoguery and disaster while leading one of the most bizarre and eventful existences in the annals of modern Europe. Recalling Trebitsch-Lincoln in Hungary makes sense, after all it was in a Hungarian provincial town on the banks of the Danube where his life began.
It is never a good sign when a town’s main claim to fame is a nuclear power plant, but that is the case with Paks, a town of some 20,000 Hungarians on the western banks of the Danube River approximately 120 kilometers south of Budapest. Other than nuclear energy, Paks has largely escaped notoriety. For instance, the most famous person from the town was a pharmacist, Gyula Nemes Abay, the author of many famous works on the history of pharmacies in Hungary. Abay is obscure even by Hungarian standards, but Paks has another son who was much more famous, or more correctly, infamous. One whose modest upbringing in the town did little to predict his later rise to international infamy.
Ignaz Trebitsch was born in 1879, the son of an Orthodox Rabbi in Paks. His father’s profession may have influenced his later life. He would get involved in the practice of religion and spiritualism on several occasions in the decades to come. Oddly, Trebitsch-Lincoln turned his back on Judaism. He left Paks along with his family when he was still a teenager. He managed to get accepted in the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art. He did next to nothing at the Academy. Instead, he spent his time writing and selling travel stories to newspapers about his adventures in South America, a place he had never visited.
Failing Upward – A Professional Grifter
The police soon took an interest in Trebitsch due to his affinity for petty theft. It is said that crime doesn’t pay, but Trebitsch would prove that cliché wrong time and again. He stole a gold watch at his sister’s residence, then sold it for enough money to travel abroad to Great Britain. He soon got baptized, then traveled back to the continent where he began to study at a Lutheran seminary. Soon he got himself a job as a missionary working to convert Jews to Protestantism in Quebec, Canada. He worked first for the Presbyterians and then later the Anglican Church. Such contradictions and wild inconsistencies in Trebitsch’s career choices were common throughout his life. The amazing thing, he was just getting started. Trebitsch left Canada after controversy over his pay. It seemed that wherever Trebitsch went, fraud followed.
By 1903 he was back in Britain, making fast friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury and getting himself appointed to the equivalent of a parish priest position in the County of Kent. It was also around this time that Trebitsch added Lincoln to his surname. He would later claim that this was in honor of Abraham Lincoln. What honest Abe and this professional grifter had in common is hard to tell? Soon Trebitsch-Lincoln have up on mainstream religion as he made another powerful friend, Seebohm Rowntree, a man who had made millions in the chocolate industry. Not only was Rowntree a millionaire, he was also a powerful politician for the Labor Party who hired Trebitsch-Lincoln as his private secretary. Rowntree supported Trebitsch-Lincoln in running for the parliamentary seat of Darlington in 1909. This all took place while Trebitsch-Lincoln was still a citizen of Austria-Hungary. Incredibly he won the seat.
Success was not something Trebitsch-Lincoln was ever able to sustain. He suffered from money woes and was unable to run for reelection. Soon his focus turned back to Eastern Europe where he hoped to make his own fortune. Specifically, Trebitsch-Lincoln involved himself in the powder keg that was the pre-World War One Balkans, while founding the Anglo-Austrian Petroleum Syndicate. When he wasn’t trying to get investors to use their money to pump dry wells in the oil fields of Romania, Trebitsch-Lincoln was trying to create a cartel that would control all the pipelines in the area. He failed at this as well.
Prisoner of War – On Both Sides Of Enemy Lines
The outbreak of World War I irreparably changed Trebitsch-Lincoln’s career trajectory. He was now able to offer his subversive skills to spy on the enemy. Just who the enemy was depended more on Trebitsch-Lincoln’s self-interest rather than any nationality or ideology. He started the war by working as a censor for the British while professing support for the Germans. Trebitsch-Lincoln was lucky to escape Britain before he ended up in prison. He soon washed up on America’s shores. This was where he wrote a famous book purporting to spill secrets on British spying. Keep in mind, that this was a man who only six year earlier had been a Member of Parliament in Great Britain!
The British were enraged enough by Trebitsch’s book to the point that they got the Americans to arrest him. Trebitsch-Lincoln then would end up being extradited and spending three years in a British prison. Up to this point in his life, Trebitsch-Lincoln was proving the point that the truth really is stranger than fiction. Even the most imaginative novelist could not possibly create a character so duplicitous and sell it to the public with a straight face. Who was Trebitsch-Lincoln? Was he British, Hungarian or Jewish? Was he devout or the equivalent a pad your own pocket evangelist? Was he a spy for the British or the Germans? By the end of World War I, Trebitsch-Lincoln had been an Orthodox Jew, Lutheran, Protestant missionary, oil company executive, writer, censor, spy, and prisoner. The amazing thing was that his life was about to get even more bizarre.
Click here for: Mysticism, Fanaticism and Mayhem – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part Two)
Norman loved to tell the extraordinary tale of this remarkable character. He would rock back and forth in utter glee when recounting it. He said it was ”the best Hollywood movie never made!”. Thanks for remembering that great night.