Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav at 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, he converted to Christianity to marry a gentile girl from Hamburg, Germany. They moved to Canada where he became a missionary, but after a couple of years they moved to England, and Trebitsch abandoned his religious calling to work for a wealthy British industrialist. In 1910 Trebitsch was unexpectedly elected to the British Parliament, but after just ten months he was forced to resign when it emerged he was financially bankrupt. He quickly bounced back, and began promoting various dubious business projects in Eastern Europe, duping countless investors out of their money. When the businesses collapsed Trebitsch was reduced to taking loans using forged letters of guarantee. Fearing arrest, Trebitsch tried to become a professional spy for the British, who were at war with Germany, hoping to make enough money to pay off his creditors. The scheme quickly fell apart, so to avoid arrest Trebitsch fled to New York where he fabricated a fantastic story of his involvement in espionage and intrigue, and sold it to a newspaper for money. He was arrested by the police and extradited back to London, where he was imprisoned for three years. Upon his release he went to Germany and joined forces with a group of extremist right-wing radicals, with whom he took a leading role in the abortive five-day Kapp Putsch of 1920.
When the Kapp Putsch collapsed most of the principle instigators went into hiding or left Germany to avoid arrest. Trebitsch obtained a false identity but remained in Berlin, while the authorities argued among themselves whether or not to arrest him. Eventually he left Berlin for Munich where he joined the other conspirators who had taken refuge there, protected by the right-wing sympathetic government of Gustav Ritter von Kahr. He reconnected with his new friend, the right-wing reactionary and former military commander, Colonel Max Bauer, who had written a defensive pamphlet about the Putsch and its intentions. Trebitsch went back to Berlin to try and find a publisher for the pamphlet, but once again he came to the attention of the Berlin police who were now looking to arrest him.
He returned to Munich where he holed himself up in a house in which some of Germany’s most notorious right-wing extremists were in hiding. These included Bauer, and General Erich Ludendorff, the commander of Germany’s military forces during the First World War, and a bitter opponent of postwar peace arrangements. Although there were many Germans who felt bitter about postwar arrangements, what the Kapp Putsch had proven to both Ludendorff and Bauer was that there was not yet a critical mass of people who could effectively oppose the British and French influence over Germany, and take control. But instead of giving up and moving on, they came up with an audacious plan to form alliances with similarly disenchanted groups in other countries, so that the right-wing reactionary forces in Europe could return the continent to its prewar arrangements. German militarists, Russian czarist sympathizers, Austro-Hungarian conservatives, and a range of anti-communists and malcontents would unite together in an unbeatable force to liberate Europe from the weak and ineffective governments that had emerged after the Versailles Treaty.
The only government in Europe that was potentially sympathetic to such a cause was the recently formed right-wing regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy in Hungary. Bauer decided to travel to Budapest with Trebitsch to convince Horthy to support a transcontinental revolution. But first Trebitsch was sent to Berlin to raise money. Characteristically he refused to keep a low profile, and within a matter of days he was arrested and thrown into jail. In addition to his arrest the investigating officers found him in possession of a cache of documents that not only incriminated him, but also Bauer, Ludendorff, and many others, for being involved in activities that the German authorities labeled ‘High Treason’. Incredibly, Trebitsch managed to escape from jail and he disappeared from Berlin, much to the dismay of the authorities. The Munich chief of police was informed, and requested to locate Trebitsch and incarcerate him immediately. But the police chief was a right-wing sympathizer, so rather than arrest Trebitsch he allowed him to leave Munich and escape across the border into Austria. To pay for his travel and other expenses Trebitsch arranged for a correspondent of the Hearst newspaper empire to interview Ludendorff in hiding for a hefty fee, which Ludendorff immediately sent to Trebitsch.
Bauer and Trebitsch made their way to Budapest, arriving there on May 15, 1920. Hungary had been in turmoil since Horthy had launched his violent coup a few months earlier against the Soviet-sympathetic regime of Jewish-born Béla Kun (originally Kohn). Although he was now in complete control of the country, forces loyal to him and other armed militia groups continued to kill suspected communist sympathizers, and the leading world powers refused to recognize the regime. The only way Horthy could gain international recognition was if he would sign the proposed postwar peace treaty, which meant making humiliating territorial concessions. Within a a matter of weeks after Bauer’s and Trebitsch’s arrival in Budapest the treaty was forced on the Hungarians by the Allied powers, a development that was to lead to deep and bitter resentment (much later on this was one of the reasons Horthy joined forces with Hitler, with devastating consequences for Hungarian Jewry).
In the middle of May 1920, with the demands of Versailles hanging over them, and the treaty still unsigned, the new regime was ready to talk to anyone who might help keep their country intact. The timing of the arrival of the two insurrectionists from Germany could therefore nor have been more fortuitous. They were given five-star treatment and feted wherever they went. Within a couple of days Horthy met them privately, as a result of which he designated three of his closest reactionary collaborators – all of them squalid ultra-nationalist extremists – to discuss and formulate their proposal. One of them was a brutal paramilitary murderer, Pál Prónay, commander of a violent ‘white terror’ militia group who was also a vicious anti-Semite. At the first meeting with Bauer and Trebitsch, Prónay agitatedly pulled Bauer aside and, glancing across at Trebitsch, exclaimed in a hoarse whisper, “Colonel, your dark, fat friend is a Jew! I don’t feel safe talking in front of him!” Bauer laughed, shook his head and placed a reassuring arm around Prónay’s shoulders, telling him, “I would put my hand in the fire for that man – you can talk in front of him without any fear whatsoever.” Prónay was skeptical and remained extremely suspicious of the “dark, fat Jew” throughout their liaisons. Bauer, meanwhile, would soon enough have cause to regret his confidence in Trebitsch.
For the next few days there were intensive discussions and a plan was formulated that described a strategy to combine the forces of all the nationalist, anti-communist, postwar disillusioned groups of Hungary, Germany and Russia into one force that would then militarily and politically undo the new realities that had been imposed on Europe in Versailles. The plan relied on a cast of characters that included Russian political and military émigrés in Germany, leading German military heroes such as Bauer and Ludendorff, and the new Hungarian government together with its array of reactionary supporters. Funding glossed over, but it was assumed that the Hungarian government would take on the initial expenses and that as the revolution crystallized money would materialize from a number of sources.
The plan was completed and written up by Trebitsch, and signed by Bauer, on May 26, 1920. In early June, Hungarian representatives went ahead and signed the peace treaty at the Trianon Palace in Versailles, leaving Hungary with just 28% of the territory it had controlled before the war. Undoubtedly the attitude towards signing had softened with the knowledge that a plan now existed that would potentially render the peace terms irrelevant within a short space of time. Even as the ink was drying on the newly signed treaty the conspiracy was gathering pace in Budapest. Russian czarist generals and Hungarian officials met secretly with Bauer and Trebitsch to finalize the proposed alliance which would lead to ‘a great Russia, a great Germany, and a great Hungary’. There was a even the suggestion that Trebitsch should go and meet with the emerging fascist leader in Italy, Benito Mussolini, to secure his support for the revolution, but that meeting never materialized.
Then, in the month July things began to unravel. Trebitsch became very frustrated that Ludendorff – who commanded enormous respect in Germany and beyond, and whose public support for the plan was crucial – had remained aloof and refused to join him and Bauer in Budapest. The plan also relied heavily on Hungarian government support, but Horthy and his coterie of advisors had begun to lose interest. For all kinds of reasons they had become reluctant to stir up a hornets nest across Europe, particularly if doing so involved a collection of embittered nationalists with nothing more in common than a desire to turn their resounding defeat into a vindicating victory. In addition to this, in the previous month the tide had begun to turn against the anti-Soviet White Army in the Rissian civil war, which reduced the importance of the Russian collaborators. Meanwhile the political pendulum in Europe had visibly started to swing to the right, which meant that a violent right-wing pancontinental coup was less urgent. With each passing week Horthy became less inclined to take the lead in what he realized could turn out to be an utter fiasco.
At around the same time Trebitsch became aware of a plot to kill him. An odious German nationalist involved with the plotters, Franz von Stephani – who was possibly Jewish – wrote to an associate in Budapest asking to have Trebitsch eliminated. Somehow Trebitsch saw the letter and confronted Bauer, who told him he had nothing to fear. But Trebitsch was naturally anxious. He was well aware that many of the people they were dealing with were coldblooded murderers, and he must certainly have been aware that they were rabid anti-Semites. Stephani’s letter abruptly woke him up to the fact that he wasn’t involved in some shifty business deal, or a diplomatic row with an ambassador, or a parochial political skirmish. The people he was now involved with were by-and-large amoral schemers for whom life was cheap, and whose readiness to kill was undeniable. In early September, while on a ‘mission’ to Vienna, Trebitsch suddenly disappeared from sight, taking with him a suitcase full of documents containing all the intricate details of the conspiracy. Bauer was horrified by his disappearance and even more so by the theft of the documents. He desperately tried to locate Trebitsch, but to no avail. He then asked Prónay to find Trebitsch and bring him back to Budapest by any means. Prónay dispatched two associates to track Trebitsch down, kidnap him, and bring him back, but although the pair managed to find him they were unable to carry out their orders.
Trebitsch was in hiding, desperately trying to secure his safety, and his financial security. He approached both the British and the French embassies in Vienna and tried to sell them the documents, with the claim they contained vital military and political information that would guarantee the future security of Europe. The irony of this dreadful treachery was not that it had been so presciently predicted by Prónay only a couple of months earlier, as much as it had been Trebitsch who had himself formulated much of the material that he was now offering for sale. The British were understandably wary of Trebitsch. The French were similarly disinterested, and rejected his offer. So Trebitsch shopped the documents around and discovered that the Czechoslovakian government was extremely eager to get their hands on them. The newly formed country of Czechoslovakia was made up entirely of territory taken from Hungary and Austria, and its leaders were terrified that Hungary would join forces with reactionary forces within Czechoslovakia and attempt to repossess what they had lost.
Trebitsch journeyed to Prague to negotiate the sale. Once there he managed to secure a substantial price for his document collection. The Czechoslovak Government immediately attempted to use the information contained in the documents as propaganda by contacting a variety of international newspapers with the story of the conspiracy. They also reached out to diplomatic contacts in various countries to inform them of the impending threat. But what they discovered on both fronts was that Trebitsch was considered so unreliable, that no one paid too much attention to what he had shared with the Czechs, and the British Foreign Office actively dismissed the information as ‘concoctions’.
For Trebitsch this was the last straw. For the first time he had actually been in possession of valuable intelligence information, having been at the very heart of a nascent reactionary movement that threatened the stability of the free world, a movement that was the beginning of a trend that would ultimately morph into fascism and Nazism. But Trebitsch’s tarnished reputation militated against anyone of note taking anything he said or conveyed in documents remotely seriously. Even if there were those who believed he had been involved with Bauer and Ludendorff, Horthy and the Russians, his very participation in the events he described meant that the plot must be fantasy, and the plotters fantasists. In late December 1920, The Times newspaper in London published a three-part summary of Trebitsch’s documents in which his name featured frequently. Editorial comment scorned the entire conspiracy, referring to it as the hopeless dreams of a bunch of powerless and delusional ideologues, proven principally by the fact that they had involved Trebitsch.
The one who suffered most from Trebitsch’s latest shenanigans was his former mentor and ‘friend’, Colonel Max Bauer. Ridiculed and criticized in equal measure by friend and foe, Bauer went into hiding near Munich, where he wrote a number of confused and confusing accounts of his involvement with his former protégé, which he admitted had been utterly foolish. But his credibility as a political force was shattered.
Trebitsch was also being discredited by the media and the authorities, who claimed variously that he was a fantasist, or a forger, or both. He was compelled to react, particularly to the charges of forgery, as if he was guilty of fabricating the documents this meant the Czechoslovak Government would not pay him the remainder of his money. He launched a lawsuit against the Czechs to demand that he be paid what was due to him. This public legal challenge could not be ignored and resulted in his arrest in Vienna in February 1921. He was summarily charged with two contradictory crimes, High Treason – a criminal charge punishable by death – and forgery, on the basis of the complaint by the Czechs that the entire cache of documents he had sold them was fabricated for financial gain.
The two-month trial that ensued was a complete debacle. With no one willing to give evidence either for or against Trebitsch, the trial was dominated by Trebitsch, who spoke at great length about his life history, his beliefs, his involvement with the unsuccessful right-wing conspiracy, and his gripes against the Czechoslovak government. The court demanded that the Czechs submit photographs of all the documents they had bought from Trebitsch to establish their authenticity or otherwise, but only a fraction were sent. After a close examination of these photographs, and several other documents confiscated from Trebitsch, the court concluded that they were all undoubtedly genuine. That being the case Trebitsch should have been executed for the crime of High Treason, but once again his luck was in. There were certain members of the Austrian coalition government who had also been in touch with right-wing extremists associated with the conspiracy, which meant that if Trebitsch was found guilty it might cause a political crisis. So, in a remarkable twist of fate, he was found not guilty of both charges and released for deportation in late-June.
The press was waiting for him as he exited the jail. There had been wild speculation as to what he would do now he was free. It was widely believed, including by Trebitsch himself, that his former associates had assigned assassins to kill him, and with no country eager to give him residency rights, there seemed nowhere for him to go. A hushed silence fell as he began a brief statement to the gathered journalists. “My destination,” he told them, “is a profound secret. I will disappear as if the earth has swallowed me up, and will reappear in an unexpected place within eight years. Meanwhile, I will have accomplished my task.”
Over the next few months he was spotted under various aliases in a number of different cities in Europe. In the fall of 1921 he sailed under a false name to the United States. He managed to slip through at the port in New York, but in January 1922 was arrested on immigration charges, then released when he agreed to leave the U.S. via the West Coast. By October he was reported to be in Tokyo. From there he traveled to China, where he soon became involved with a local warlord, General Yang Sen. Soon afterwards Trebitsch joined the circle of another warlord named Wu P’ei Fu (who would later deny having ever met him). By 1923 he was the advisor to yet another warlord, Wu Hung Chiang, with whom he went to Europe on a quest to find a massive loan, and also to introduce him and his circle to political figures and individuals of influence. One of the first people he visited was Colonel Max Bauer, whose willingness to see Trebitsch can only be wondered at. Bauer took the Chinese delegation to Germany to meet Ludendorff and others, and soon enough a loan for $25 million was secured from an Austrian industrialist in exchange for mining rights in China. Trebitsch returned to China, but the loan never materialized, and before long he was ousted from his advisory position.
In early 1925 Trebitsch once again arrived in New York, where he sold the story of his Chinese exploits to the New York World magazine. Fact was heavily laced with fantasy, as with Trebitsch claiming to have been at the heart of every major political and military upheaval in China over the previous three years, always one step ahead of the foreign intelligence services and various other foes, real and imagined. But New York had nothing to offer Trebitsch, and he once again went to China where he took to wandering around the country. During that time he decided to explore Buddhism, and within a few months he had moved to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where he holed himself up at a Buddhist monastery and began to prepare himself for conversion.
This might have turned out to be just another one of Trebitsch’s insane flirtations, but a dreadful piece of news from England seems to have pushed him over the edge in a way that no previous news had ever done before. Trebitsch’s relationship with his family had always been sporadic. Over the years he had seen them from time to time, and his wife and some of his children had even spent time with him in China. One of his sons, Ignatius Jr., was a soldier in the British army. In December 1925, in a state of complete drunkenness he entered a residential house together with a fellow soldier in an attempt to rob it. In the course of the robbery a resident confronted the pair and Ignatius Jr. drew a pistol and shot him dead. The two soldiers were quickly apprehended and tried, and on January 21, 1926, Ignatius Jr. was sentenced to death, despite it having been proven that he was drunk on the night in question.
By the time Trebitsch heard about his son’s impending execution, it was already February. Trebitsch immediately boarded a boat to Holland in an attempt to get to Europe in time to say goodbye to him, but when he arrived in Amsterdam he was told his son was already dead. The news seems to have jolted Trebitsch into a new realm. From that moment on his flirtation with Buddhism would dominate his life. In attempt after attempt with various official bodies and people of influence he tried to reach Tibet, or to meet with the Panshen Lama, who was one of the two holiest figures in Buddhism. But Trebitsch’s reputation as a master of intrigue and political agitation dogged him; for the rest of his life he found himself unable to do even the simplest things without stirring the interest of official bodies and foreign intelligence services.
In 1931 Trebitsch was formally ordained as a Buddhist monk. He was never seen in western clothes again, and from that time on only went by the name ‘Chau Kung’. His wanderings continued apace, now with the accompaniment an entourage of Buddhist disciples made up of an eclectic group of European converts, whose lives he ruled with an iron fist. He made several attempts to reinject himself into European life, first by visiting Europe with a plan to open Buddhist monasteries for European converts, and later on by trying to insert himself into the diplomatic processes thrown up by the various flare-ups between the Japanese and Chinese in China. In 1938, five years after the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Trebitsch claimed to have experienced a vision in which he was told he was the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. His ‘vision’ was well timed. The previous year he had publicly declared his support for the Imperial Japanese after the Japanese army occupied most of Shanghai. It was a politically savvy move, as the Japanese would retain control of Shanghai until 1945. In recognition of his vociferous support – most Chinese Buddhists loathed the Japanese – the Japanese government formally recognized him as the Dalai Lama, although in practice their recognition had very little meaning, as the Tibetan controlled religion rejected his claim outright.
When the Second World War broke out Trebitsch offered to help the Nazis win the war against the Allies, claiming to have intelligence information that would benefit their war aims. Perhaps he was motivated by his lifelong obsession with the British, which over the years had vacillated between visceral hatred and a longing to return to England. But nothing came of his flirtation with the Nazis, and as the war progressed he faded into complete obscurity. When Trebitsch died following an operation on his stomach, on October 6, 1943, his death didn’t merit a mention in any of the hundreds of newspapers who had reported on him during his lifetime. Some would speculate that he was poisoned by the Nazis, or by allied sympathizers who despised him for his relationship with the Japanese and the Germans, or by Buddhist extremists who loathed him for his claim to be the Dalai Lama, or by Jews who were disgusted by how he gave them such a bad name. Or maybe he just died from a stomach ailment, followed by a poorly executed medical operation. We will never know.
Yitzchak Trebitsch, Ignatius Timotheus Trebitsch, Ignatz Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln, Abbot Chau Kung – and that’s just a list of his real names! Over the years this tempestuous chameleon employed dozens of aliases, and adopted the cultures and religions of almost every place he visited. He learned to speak a dozen or more languages fluently, and wrote copiously in most of them. He was involved in the politics of countless countries over many decades, and his name was recognized by millions across the developed world. He was notorious for his association with agitation, intrigue, espionage and the shady world of those individuals who have no substance, and no morals. And yet, despite his notoriety, he left no lasting imprint, no legacy, and no achievements. His was a life of all wind and no waves. Restless, unhappy, unsuccessful and ultimately a loser, the orthodox boy from Hungary who ended his life as a Buddhist monk in Shanghai remains an enigma to all those who have encountered the story of his peripatetic existence.
(I am indebted to Professor Bernard Wasserstein, whose book ‘The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln’, Yale University Press, 1988, provided me with the majority of the information and research material for the four-part biographical series on Trebitsch)