Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills
The story so far: Ignatz Trebitsch was born in 1879, in Paks, Hungary, to a devoutly Orthodox Jewish family. A troubled boy with a history of petty theft, in 1899, after the death of his father, he converted to Christianity to marry a gentile girl from Hamburg, Germany. The couple moved to Canada where he missionized to the Jews of Montreal. The mission was not successful and they moved to England. After inheriting money following the death of his wife’s father, Trebitsch abandoned his religious calling, and began working for a wealthy British industrialist, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree. In 1910 Trebitsch was unexpectedly elected a Member of Parliament, but after just ten months he was forced to resign when it became clear that he was financially bankrupt. He quickly bounced back, and began promoting various dubious business projects in Eastern Europe, duping countless investors into giving him their money. Eventually the businesses collapsed and Trebitsch was reduced to borrowing money using forged letters of guarantee from Rowntree. When the forgeries came to light Trebitsch’s creditor threatened to call the police. But Trebitsch had a new scheme up his sleeve – he had decided to become a spy.
In December 1914, Trebitsch contacted the British War Office and presented them with an outrageous plan to help beat the Germans in the horrific war that was gathering pace with each passing week. As a fluent German speaker, and a former Member of Parliament, he suggested he might present himself to the Germans as a traitor, and gain their trust, and meanwhile he would report back to the British if he came across any useful information. His ultimate goal would be to gain their complete trust so that he could inform the British of any plans involving the German war fleet, enabling the Royal Navy to surprise and destroy German warships in an epic naval battle that would change the course of the war.
It is fair to say that Captain Kenny at the Secret Service department in the War Office (if that was his real name) did not take Trebitsch too seriously. He suggested that Trebitsch travel to Holland to find out how much cocoa Germany imported via Rotterdam. Perhaps Kenny was being facetious, or maybe he was telling Trebitsch politely that his services were not required, but either Trebitsch didn’t get the joke, or he was so desperate for a formal role that he chose to treat the ridiculous quest as an official mission. He would later claim his discussion with Kenny was a double bluff, and that he had always intended to lead the Royal Navy into defeat against the German war fleet, not the other way around. In reality his desperation had allowed him to drift into a world of wild fantasy and make-believe, a one-way trip from which he would never return.
On December 18, 1914, Trebitsch arrived in Rotterdam, where he arranged to meet with the German Consul-General, Carl Gneist, to offer his services as a double agent. Gneist considered Trebitsch rather odd, but in times of war even the strangest people can become an asset, and so he decided to give him some innocuous information to take back to London. Although Gneist was only testing the waters, Trebitsch saw this mission as official validation and, of course, a financial opportunity. He rushed back to London where he met with Kenny, who immediately sent him to the Director of British Naval Intelligence, a formidable man called Reginald Hall, later an Admiral and a Member of Parliament. Hall was extremely suspicious of Trebitsch, and after hearing him out, and taking copies of the German information, he told him he would be in touch to discuss payment and future missions in due course.
But the wait was unbearable for Trebitsch, who was under phenomenal pressure. At any time he could be arrested for fraud, and within a matter of weeks several loans would come up for repayment and angry creditors would be at his door demanding money. A fugitive from the law, and completely broke, he tried to put pressure on Hall by getting in touch with contacts from his parliamentary days. One former parliamentary colleague owned a popular Sunday newspaper. Trebitsch met him and presented his story as a complaint about Hall, whom he said was missing a unique chance to end the war. He also wrote to Sir Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty was directly responsible for the Royal Navy. Neither of these approaches produced results, so Trebitsch began peddling the story of his espionage experiences to a number of newspapers, in the hope they would pay him. But the idea that any newspaper would pick up the story was ludicrous. Any war related news story needed to be cleared by the censors and publishing a story without going through the censors was a criminal offense.
Predictably, Trebitsch’s frantic efforts came to the attention of the War Office, and Hall decided that a line needed to be drawn. He summoned Trebitsch to his office, and in an uncomfortable meeting informed him that he would not now, nor ever, be required to work for the British government in any capacity, and that the papers he had brought with him from Holland were worthless and he would not be paid for having obtained them. As if this was not shocking enough, Hall told him that he was also fully aware of Trebitsch’s financial situation and criminal activities, and that it was not the habit of the British authorities to engage felons as secret agents.
The meeting was nothing less than a bombshell. It was clear Trebitsch had reached the end of the line and had no place left to turn. He rushed back to his wife and informed her he would need to leave the country immediately. In the early hours of January 30, 1915, Trebitsch slipped out of the grubby boarding house where they lived and made his way to the southern coast of England, where he boarded the ocean liner Philadelphia, bound for New York. When he arrived he made contact with his three brothers who lived there. But none of them was in any position to support him or even offer him a place to stay. Unperturbed by this setback, Trebitsch turned to some fellow passengers whom he had befriended while on the ship to New York, to ask them for financial assistance. Remarkably he was able to obtain loans to keep himself going while he worked on finding a source of income that would propel him back to the lavish lifestyle he desired.
He contacted the German embassy in Washington DC to offer them information he claimed to have about British war plans, but a telegram from Berlin informed the embassy staff to ‘have nothing to do with Trebitsch’. But in truth espionage was not at the forefront of Trebitsch’s mind. His negative experiences with the War Office in London had more than convinced him that the secret service was not financially lucrative. Instead he decided sensational news stories were where the money was. In May, the widely read New York World magazine ran a screaming headline: ‘Revelations of I.T.T. Lincoln, former Member of Parliament, who became a German Spy’. The story that followed in two separate articles saw fantasy embrace fiction, with nuggets of truth used only as a launch pad for dramatic and self-aggrandizing escapades involving Trebitsch and an entire cast of tertiary characters. Trebitsch claimed he had tried to gain the trust of the British authorities by bringing them secret codes from the Germans, but somehow his intentions were discovered and he had been forced to escape for his life. Incredibly, he defended his hatred for the British as a natural reaction to their arrogant prejudice towards foreigners, and particularly those originating from the Austro-Hungarian empire. This, from a man who had not only been elected to Parliament by British citizens, but who had systematically defrauded every British individual with whom he had ever come into contact.
For a few weeks after the articles appeared Trebitsch found himself in the limelight, as his incredible ‘exploits’ were reported around the world. But his triumph was short lived. The British government may have allowed a fugitive from the law to remain at large while they were involved in a major military effort, but the embarrassment caused by the articles, particularly when they were delightedly used as propaganda by the Germans, meant that this irksome troublemaker had to be caught and silenced. Hall at the War Office made arrangements with the famous Pinkerton Detective company to apprehend Trebitsch, which they did on August 4, 1915. The following morning he was arraigned in front of a judge in Brooklyn. Trebitsch claimed the accusations of fraud were false, insisting his crime was espionage, and he tried to claim political asylum. But the judge dismissed his indignant protestations, and he was remanded at the infamous Raymond Street Jail in Brooklyn while the court awaited papers from London. For the next few months the British authorities struggled to organize Trebitsch’s extradition, even sending a senior police officer to New York to accompany the prisoner back to London. But the judge was in no hurry to comply, and the disgruntled British policeman was forced to return empty handed. Meanwhile Trebitsch had managed to charm the prison authorities and gain their trust. He became a celebrity prisoner and was granted privileges that allowed him to leave and reenter the jail almost at will.
In January 1916, as the painfully slow justice system worked through the extradition process, Trebitsch published a scurrilous book titled ‘Revelations of an International Spy’ in which he made the fantastic claim, among others, that his espionage exploits had begun long before the onset of war and had included his European work for Rowntree going back almost a decade. More startling than this ‘revelation’ was the fact that by the time the book hit the bookstores, Trebitsch had escaped from jail and completely disappeared. Some days after his escape he made an unannounced visit to the offices of the ‘New York American’ newspaper, where he gave an impromptu press conference to the astonished editorial staff before disappearing again. As the police desperately sought his whereabouts, journalists from multiple media outlets received letters from Trebitsch on an almost daily basis. Each letter contained ever more incredible claims and threats. With the police looking clumsier with each passing week, it became evident that his escape and agitation were a remarkable publicity stunt. The entire run of his book sold out, and his notoriety grew exponentially.
Trebitsch was eventually recaptured on February 20, 1916, after being betrayed by an acquaintance with whom he had arranged to meet. He was thrown back into jail, this time with stringent supervision. His extradition was still not finalized and his lawyers appealed for clemency to the United States Supreme Court. They were in no mood for leniency, however, and on May 8 issued a ruling that he be extradited back to England at the earliest opportunity. Once again a police officer was dispatched from London to accompany him back to England, and after sailing back across the Atlantic, Trebitsch finally appeared for his arraignment at Bow Street Police Court in East London on June 6. Within a month he was at trial, and although he presented an impassioned defense on his own behalf, the jury found him guilty of all the charges without even retiring to consider their verdict. Bearing in mind that he was being tried for petty fraud his sentence was unusually harsh – three years high security incarceration at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. The decision to treat him so severely was undoubtedly influenced by his anti-British activities in New York, activities that had caused enormous embarrassment to the British during this period.
In the Summer of 1919 Trebitsch was released and, his British citizenship having been revoked, arrangements were made for his deportation. At first there was a reluctance to let him go, with senior British officials inexplicably concerned that he would join forces with the new communist government in Hungary, but when that government collapsed Trebitsch was unceremoniously deported to mainland Europe. Instead of making his way back to Hungary, however, he journeyed to Berlin, where within weeks he had joined forces with an extreme right wing group, for whom he wrote anti-British articles in the Deutsche Zeitung, a disreputable rag that ranted against anyone who was thought to have contributed to the humiliation of Germany’s defeat in the recently concluded world war. It was at around this time that Trebitsch got to know Colonel Max Bauer, a former senior German military strategist whose bitter resentment of the German political class – who he blamed for Germany’s capitulation and surrender – was pathological. Bauer was deeply involved in revolutionary agitation against Germany’s new leaders, although he remained widely respected by huge swathes of the German public. He was also a vicious anti-Semite, but strangely enough this does not seem to have affected his relationship with Trebitsch, even though he must have known that Trebitsch was born a Jew.
Bauer, like so many others before him, was taken in by Trebitsch’s charm and intelligence, and adopted him as his protégé. In the fullness of time – again, like so many before him – this was a decision he would live to regret. By October 1919 Trebitsch had become Bauer’s closest advisor, and also his principle public representative. Very soon Trebitsch was caught up in various intrigues involving every kind of unsavory political character engaged in trying to reestablish the German monarchy under the rule of Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of the recently abdicated and exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then, in March 1920, Trebitsch took on a leading role in one of the most remarkable of all the interwar national insurrections – the notorious Kapp Putsch of 1920. The five-day chaotic and ultimately abortive coup lasted between March 13 and March 18, 1920, and was led by a right-wing East Prussian bureaucrat, Wolfgang Kapp. It was an abject disaster from the very beginning. Although initially the recently installed German Weimar government was frightened enough to flee to Dresden, within a couple of days a general strike was declared by the unions, and it became clear that the military had not seriously sided with the plotters, leaving them utterly powerless on every front. The coup collapsed in shambles.
During the five days of frantic activity, however, at least one person seemed to revel every moment – Trebitsch. Appointed by Kapp as his ‘Minister of Public Information’, Trebitsch became the official spokesman of the revolution, and it’s censor. No telegram could leave Germany without his permission, and no information could be published unless he had personally approved it. The foreign correspondents in Berlin reacted angrily and vehemently, but to no avail. Trebitsch took particular delight in ripping up the telegrams of British correspondents in front of their faces. Within a couple of days the ‘revolution’ had started to unravel, and on March 17 Kapp, seeing that the game was up, summarily resigned and fled to Sweden. Other conspirators also fled, or were arrested, as law and order was reestablished and the Weimar government took back the reins of power.
One of the last senior Kapp conspirators to leave the Reich Chancellery building at the end of the coup, on March 18, was none other than Trebitsch. On his way out he encountered two men who had flown in especially from Munich to join the now defunct revolution. One was 52-year-old Dietrich Eckart, a poet and journalist, who had recently established the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, forerunner of the Nazi party. The other was a young former corporal from Austria and future Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Many years later Hitler’s press secretary referenced this chance meeting in his memoirs, noting that Hitler would recall that Eckart had prevented him from talking to Trebitsch on account of his Jewish origins. Trebitsch himself never mentioned the meeting, and was possibly not even aware that it took place. As he rushed out of the Chancellery building that day he was probably so absorbed in planning his survival following yet another catastrophe, that the sight of a middle-aged journalist accompanied by a scruffy ex-military sidekick would not have caught his attention. One can only speculate what might have happened had they met under different circumstances.
In the final part of this series find out how Trebitsch became a prominent member of the secretive White International fascist organization that plotted the takeover of Europe, ultimately leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Following his release from custody he meandered from country to country under various aliases, unable to settle anywhere. But it was his astonishing decision to convert to Buddhism and become a monk that surely ranks as his most bizarre move of all. And yet, rather than confine him to the margins, Trebitsch the Buddhist monk continued to be a constant source of agitation to a wide range of people and countries until the end of his life, through his involvement with Chinese warlords, Japanese imperialism and even the Nazi war effort. The remarkable life-journey of Ignatz Trebitsch remains enthralling and absorbing until the very end.