Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav at Young Israel North Beverly Hills.
In Part One we were introduced to our protagonist, Ignatz Trebitsch, a Jewish-born Hungarian adventurer, whose early life as a strictly Orthodox Jew from a well-to-do family had fallen apart during his teen years as his father’s business collapsed. Unscrupulous and amoral, Trebitsch converted to Christianity in 1899 at the age of 20, to marry the daughter of a respectable German maritime officer. An inveterate traveler, Trebitsch moved to Canada where he ended up running a mission trying to convert Jews to Christianity. The missionary enterprise collapsed due to a chronic lack of funds, and the Trebitsches moved to Great Britain where an inheritance cash windfall propelled them to middle class respectability.
After adding the more British sounding name ‘Lincoln’ to his surname, in 1906 Trebitsch was hired by a leading British industrialist, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, to research social conditions of the poorer classes on the European continent for a groundbreaking social study that he wished to publish. In the fullness of time, Rowntree, who was initially charmed by Trebitsch’s personality and intelligence, would regret ever having met this con artist and troublemaker, as his new employee became involved in multiple diplomatic controversies in London and across Europe, and ultimately in a number of serious scandals in which Rowntree was inadvertently implicated.
Trebitsch’s job description was simple. Rowntree wanted him to collect and collate information about the social and economic conditions in rural Europe. To facilitate this Trebitsch requested that his well-connected boss enlist the help of the British Government Foreign Office so that he could gain entry to all the British embassies in the various countries he intended to visit. Rowntree unquestioningly arranged for Trebitsch to receive a letter of introduction from his close friend Captain John Sinclair MP, at the time a senior cabinet minister in the British administration, then in the hands of the left-leaning Liberal Party. With this letter in hand Trebitsch confidently strode into the Foreign Office in London on March 20, 1906, and purposefully sought and obtained letters of introduction for him to show senior British diplomats at the embassies in France, Belgium and Switzerland.
Initially things went well. Trebitsch arrived in Belgium and was the recipient of generous assistance from the British embassy staff in Brussels, who brought him into contact with Belgian government officials and other people who could furnish him with the information he was looking for. In Switzerland he received similar help from British officials. With the wind in his sails, and clearly enjoying the extravagant hotels and high living afforded to him by his lavish travel allowance, Trebitsch wrote to the Foreign Office for more letters of introduction, asking for them to be addressed to a variety of British diplomats across Europe. They sent them out, but soon things were going wrong. An indignant letter from the vice-consul in Copenhagen complained of Trebitsch having ‘borrowed’ books and not returned them.
Slowly a pattern emerged. In each new city Trebitsch’s demands would escalate. He inexplicably began to see himself as an instrument of the British government, researching statistics that would contribute to his adopted country’s economic success, both at home and abroad. In reality he was just a private individual on an idiosyncratic research mission on behalf of a wealthy patron, and no British official was obliged to help him in his quest for information. That being the case, his ill-mannered demands for assistance were utterly misplaced.
While most of the British embassy officials he encountered diplomatically ignored his obnoxious behavior, in the summer of 1907 Trebitsch met his nemesis, in the form of the British Ambassador to France, Sir Francis Bertie. Bertie was notorious for his arrogance and eccentricity, and seems, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been an unlikely candidate for the post as principal British diplomat to such an important European country. Notwithstanding this anomaly, his revulsion for Trebitsch was well placed. It seems that the intrepid researcher had arrived in Paris and marched into the embassy brandishing his introduction letter, demanding that the staff arrange for him to obtain a collection of official publications from the French Foreign Ministry that would cost them two thousand francs. In the scheme of things this was not a huge sum of money, but Bertie was unwilling to spend a penny of the embassy’s budget on this rude, self-important upstart, even if he was working for a leading British industrialist.
Bertie’s refusal to cooperate with Trebitsch resulted in a bitter exchange of correspondence. Trebitsch threatened that unless his request was met he would take his complaint to the ‘highest quarters’. The Ambassador forwarded the offending letter to his superiors in London, with the expectation that they would support him. He could not have been more wrong. In a saga that epitomized the indecision and weakness of government bureaucracy, and ability to waste time on trivialities, this matter of no importance spiraled into a full-scale diplomatic crisis, involving multiple diplomats, civil servants, elected officials and representatives of a foreign government. In the end Trebitsch got his books, which he insisted should be sent via an expensive courier to Rowntree’s home in England. They were probably never read, and the victory was in every sense meaningless. But Trebitsch was not someone concerned with meaningful victories.
By 1909 Trebitsch had concluded his research for Rowntree. The book based on the collected data was not published until 1911, but in the meantime Trebitsch went in a new direction, using his connection with Rowntree to launch one of the most extraordinary political careers in British parliamentary history. There is no historical record to explain how he obtained the nomination as Liberal Party candidate for the Darlington constituency, but the facts speak for themselves. In April 1909, the Darlington Liberal Association unanimously decided that their designated candidate for Member of Parliament would be Ignatius Trebitsch-Lincoln. What was particularly strange about this decision was that Trebitsch was not naturalized as a British citizen until May 1909, which meant that at the time of his selection he was still a foreign national. In truth, his selection was for all intents and purposes academic. The next general election was not expected for several years, and in any event, the seat in question had been solidly Conservative for many years, in the hands of the Pease family, whose influence permeated the local scene at every level. Trebitsch’s chances of being elected to Parliament were limited to the point of being non-existent.
Then, in the Fall of 1909, the House of Lords – the unelected upper chamber of Britain’s parliament – soundly rejected the “People’s Budget” proposed by Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, precipitating a political crisis that led to an unexpected general election in January 1910. Suddenly Trebitsch was up for election, thrusting him into the spotlight, a situation he embraced with characteristic relish. His opponent was Herbert Pike Pease, whose credentials were impeccable, and whose record was unsullied by watch thievery and reckless controversies. In addition to this, the Pease family had held the Darlington seat for decades, and would continue to hold the seat long after Trebitsch had disappeared off the scene. More significantly, there was a local distaste for foreigners, that in Trebitsch’s case was further augmented by an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. But Trebitsch was not concerned by these impediments; indeed, they seemed only to spur him on.
As usual, he desperately needed money, having already burned through an unbelievably generous loan granted to him by Rowntree when he left his employment. Shamelessly, he turned to an old acquaintance, Revd. Chaim Lypshytz, and asked him for a loan of a few hundred pounds to help fund his election campaign. Incredibly, Lypshytz loaned him the money, an act of generous-spiritedness that defies explanation, particularly in light of the disappearance of his wife’s gold watch coinciding with Trebitsch’s departure from his mission in 1897. It goes without saying that the loan was never repaid.
With money in hand Trebitsch began to stage public meetings to inform bemused voters why his opponent would be a terrible choice of representative for Darlington, despite years of honorable service. He also used Lypshytz’s money to produce a squalid pamphlet titled ‘Powder and Shot’, in which he attacked Pease and the Conservatives for their intention to introduce trade tariffs to protect British manufacturers. According to the pamphlet, similar policies in Germany had forced many Germans to eat their own horses and even their pet dogs. This remarkable claim was attributed to the lack of any serious competition from abroad – the inevitable result of strict trade controls – which meant that local suppliers were able raise the prices of staple goods, forcing thousands of Germans into dire poverty.
The residents of Darlington began to fall for Trebitsch’s exotic charm, as he entertained them with shrill political speeches peppered with outlandish stories and bizarre slogans. “You are Britishers by a mere accident of birth,” he declared in his thick accent at one meeting, “while I am a Britisher by choice.” Asked how he could ever expect to win such an uphill race, he confidently predicted that he would win “by 30 votes”. Conservatives were understandably irritated by his nerve, and his nefarious tactics. Pease supporters began to attend his public meetings, purposely drowning out his speeches by chanting “Cocoa! Cocoa!” – a reference to his former paymaster, Rowntree, whose money everyone assumed was funding his campaign. Trebitsch later wrote that at one meeting “we had the unpleasant experience of being pelted with banana skins, stones wrapped in paper, and rotten eggs.” But he was undeterred, having experienced the same hostility and worse during his time as a missionary to the Jews of Montreal.
One of the most astonishing aspects of Trebitsch’s campaign strategy was the decision to play up his Jewishness. The same man who had unceremoniously dumped his Jewish faith the moment his father had died declared to a meeting of Liberal Party supporters, “I am a Jew and I am proud to belong to that race. I am a Jew with all the ability of a Jew. I have the will power, the lofty ideas, and I will show the Tories of Darlington that I can fight like a Jew.” This was a perfect example of Trebitsch’s self-serving audacity. Rather than remaining silent on the subject of his origins, he responded to persistent anti-Semitic murmurings by highlighting his roots, proclaiming them a great advantage in his fight to win the seat.
Another remarkable feature of the campaign was his endorsement by some of the most prominent politicians of the day. Herbert Samuel, a senior minister in the administration who later gained fame as the first British High Commissioner in Palestine, joined Trebitsch as he campaigned in Darlington, telling the residents that they were “fortunate in having so able and active a champion.” Even Winston Churchill sent a message wishing Trebitsch every success “in the fine fight you are making for Free Trade, Land Reform and Popular Government.”
The day of the election arrived and Trebitsch had himself driven around Darlington in an open top car, while he stood in the back waving dramatically at startled passersby. An incredible 95% of the electorate came out to vote. In the evening more than two thousand people piled into the town hall to hear the result. The vote count was so close that both candidates agreed to a recount. This delayed announcing a winner, and the crowd began to get rowdy. Finally, at 10.30pm, the mayor of Darlington strode up to the podium to declare who had won.
“A deafening shout from the multitude below quite drowned the voice of the mayor,” the local newspaper later reported, “but the fact that Mr. Lincoln stood at his right hand and was the first to step forward was a plain indication that he was the victor.” The result was indeed a stunning victory for Trebitsch. He had predicted winning by 30 votes. He was off by one. The margin was a 29-vote lead over his opponent, with 4,815 votes to 4,786. Even fellow Liberals were shocked, with one senior party member referring to the result as an ‘electoral freak.’
Trebitsch was overjoyed at his spectacular triumph. After a brief visit to Hungary to see his aged mother he returned to England, settling in London. On February 23, 1910, he delivered his first speech to the House of Commons. Bemused MP’s were treated to a detailed analysis of trade statistics, lengthy personal anecdotes, and a series of stale jokes. The press devoted far less attention to the content of his speech than they did to the thickness of his Hungarian accent. As the year progressed Trebitsch addressed Parliament several more times. But his contributions were unexceptional, and the initial interest in his unexpected election victory fizzled out as he drifted out of the spotlight.
Meanwhile Trebitsch was going through a profound financial crisis. Members of Parliament were not salaried or given any financial support; rather they were expected to be of independent means. Trebitsch had no income, save for money borrowed from an array of hapless lenders. But his reckless overspending was on a scale that far outweighed what he was able to borrow. In the fall of 1910 Rowntree realized that the significant sums of money owed to him by Trebitsch would never be repaid, and that his former protégé was hopelessly in debt. He acted decisively. The Darlington Liberals were informed that on no account was Trebitsch to stand for reelection. Rowntree’s concern became more urgent when it became clear that the government was about to collapse, and a new national election was imminent. On November 30, 1910, Trebitsch startled his constituents by announcing his retirement from the Darlington seat, abruptly concluding one of the most extraordinary – if short-lived – political careers in the history of British politics. In the election that took place a week later, Herbert Pike Pease, Trebitsch’s election opponent only a few months earlier, easily retook the Darlington seat, which he held onto until 1923.
The following month, in January 1911, Trebitsch attended a formal meeting with his numerous creditors to agree a way forward. The creditors eventually decided to reduce his overall liability by 75%, although even as they signed the terms of the deal it must have been evident to them that their money was lost for good. Trebitsch, by now the father of four children – a fifth child was born in May 1911 – did not seem in the least bit bothered by his predicament. He moved his family from Darlington to Watford, just north of London, and embarked on a series of speculative high-risk business enterprises that revolved around Eastern European oil exploration. Using his toxic mixture of charm and lies he convinced an impressive array of large and small investors to put their money into two shell companies – Amalgamated Oil Pipelines of Galicia and The Oil & Drilling Trust of Romania – both of which were predicted by him to produce massive returns as soon as crude oil began to flow across Eastern Europe. But the dream of massive oil discoveries and extraction in that region never materialized, and within a short space of time Trebitsch must have known that his exaggerated promises to investors were fraudulent. But he needed the money to fund his lifestyle, so the charade continued.
Even as the earlier investors realized they had been conned he managed to find new ones who fell for his extravagant promises and magnetic personality. Meanwhile, one after another the nominal directors whose names Trebitsch had used to attract investment resigned, not wanting to sully their names by association. The entire enterprise was heading towards a spectacular disaster. In September 1913 the High Court in London appointed an official receiver to take over the business to sort it out. The receiver was a former Liberal Parliamentary colleague of Trebitsch, John McDonald Henderson. Henderson waded through the opaque financial affairs of the various arms of the business and discovered liabilities exceeding £150,000 – more than fifteen million pounds in today’s values.
At a hastily called meeting of shareholders and banks Trebitsch was asked to explain the deep financial problems. In an impassioned defense of his activities he dismissed the financial issues as meaningless, claiming that the oil exploration and pipeline business in Eastern Europe was “on the verge of success.” But his luck had run out. Investors demanded that any saleable assets be liquidated immediately so that at least some of their money could be salvaged. The receiver was put in complete control and Trebitsch marginalized. In December he resigned in protest, but his departure was, by this time, completely irrelevant. It would take almost a decade for the mess he had left in his wake to be sorted out, and the vast majority of the shareholders never saw a penny of their investments returned.
By now Trebitsch was desperate. His lavish spending continued unabated and his hunger for money knew no bounds. But left without anything to sell to investors he was forced to find friends who would loan him money to help him out. Even this proved difficult. Rowntree flatly refused to lend him any money and others were also understandably reluctant. Eventually, in the early summer of 1914, John Goldstein, a seasoned financier who had known Trebitsch for several years, agreed to lend him money if he could find a reliable guarantor. A few days later Trebitsch informed him that Rowntree had agreed to guarantee the loan. Goldstein was a little incredulous and wrote to Rowntree at the National Liberal Club, where he resided while in London, to get written confirmation. A few days later he received a reply from Rowntree confirming the guarantee. With this letter as security Goldstein advanced Trebitsch £750 to be repaid in three months. But the letter from Rowntree was an elaborate hoax, forged by Trebitsch, whose own frequent attendance at the National Liberal Club had enabled him to interfere with Rowntree’s mail.
This brazen fraud was the twisted result of Trebitsch’s indomitable optimism. He was still convinced that some Romanian oil concessions he had held onto were worth money and could be sold, enabling him to repay Goldstein and a host of other creditors. He made plans to travel to Bucharest to arrange for their sale, but on August 1, 1914, the First World War broke out, dashing any hopes of travel to Romania. By this time the house in Watford was gone, and the Lincoln family resided in a grubby boarding house in East London. With no viable options to repay his debts Trebitsch was beyond desperate. He begged Goldstein for an extension to the loan. He then forged another letter from Rowntree to underwrite the extension. It was too late. In late November Rowntree discovered the deception, and immediately wrote to Goldstein to deny any association with Trebitsch or the loan. In a furious showdown Goldstein informed Trebitsch that he was going to involve the police if his money was not returned immediately. Perhaps in the hope that Trebitsch would somehow find the money to repay him he waited a full three weeks before carrying out his threat. But by then Trebitsch had fled to Holland, where his torrid life was about to take another extraordinary twist.
In Part Three, as the First World War rages across Europe, Trebitsch tries his hand at international espionage. With the British police hot on his heels, he ends up in New York, where he is arrested and jailed. While incarcerated he writes a sensational book about his life, ‘Confessions of an International Spy’, and becomes a media celebrity. The story of the Hungarian Jew turned Canadian missionary turned British politician turned European oil speculator turned international spy just gets stranger and stranger.
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