- The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln by Bernard Wasserstein
Yale, 327 pp, £16.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 300 04076 8
At the beginning of this puzzling book the author, Bernard Wasserstein, Professor of History and Chairman of the History Department at Brandeis University, offers his excuses for writing it. It is, he says, the story of a man who left barely any footprints in political history and whose literary relics are without enduring value. As a further turn-off Professor Wasserstein confesses that his colleagues are unlikely to regard the life of Trebitsch Lincoln as a significant contribution to the advancement of historical understanding. In the afterword Wasserstein returns to this point. He says Lincoln left nothing of enduring value: and yet his story ‘seems somehow to mirror, albeit in a grotesque and distorted fashion, the unquiet spirit of the age.’
So we have the story of a man whose political significance is slight, whose autobiography is worthless, who contributed nothing to international relations or historical understanding, and whose life had no intrinsic importance other than the fact that it mirrored in a distorted fashion the restless world of the time. At this stage the reader is surely entitled to ask: then why on earth did Professor Wasserstein bother to write the book?
He has an answer of sorts.
Late one Friday afternoon in August I was imprisoned in the Bodleian Library in Oxford – as so often in Oxford in August – by heavy rain. Having no work by me, and it being too late to order up further books from the stacks, I took to browsing among the supremely boring items which Bodley’s Librarian chooses to make available to readers on open access. My eye fell on the hundred or so red-and-green volumes of Index to the General Correspondence of the Foreign Office – enthralling reading matter, at any rate for a historian on a wet afternoon.
For reasons the psychological mechanics of which are still not clear to me, I decided out of the blue to look up the name Trebitsch Lincoln. I started to read while waiting for the storm to pass. That was more than a year ago and the tempest has not yet abated.
Professor Wasserstein then proceeded to put in an enormous amount of hard and scholarly work finding out about Lincoln. He crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic, examining archives, tracking down Lincoln’s descendants, ploughing through records as diverse as those of the Budapest Drama Academy and the Special Branch of the Shanghai Municipal Police. At one stage he consulted a friend at the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at University College London, for a sort of postmortem psychoanalysis of Lincoln.
Books have had worse origins and the end-result is a model of historical investigation. But the test has got to be, not what inspired the author to choose his subject, or how well he went about it, but whether or not the whole exercise is worthwhile. Does Lincoln’s life story advance our knowledge of the period or cast any new light on the human condition?
Lincoln was a Hungarian Jew, born in 1879 in Paks, a small town on the Danube south of Hungary. He enrolled as a student at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art, but dropped out twice and was in trouble with the police over a series of petty thefts. The trouble seems to have originated with the collapse of his father’s business affairs due to stock-market speculation. Professor Wasserstein says Lincoln concluded that the bourgeois morality which had first enriched and then destroyed his father served no purpose save to disguise a capitalist jungle, and from that moment Lincoln was unscrupulous in the acquisition of money and irresponsible in its spending.
He next turned up in London on the run from the Hungarian Police. Converted to Christianity, he stole some jewellery from the wife of the man who had converted him, prompting this long-suffering Christian to an assessment of Lincoln’s character that remained apt for the rest of Lincoln’s life. ‘He is thoroughly bad, a genius, and very attractive, but taking the crooked way always for choice.’ After a spell in Canada on a mission to convert Jews to Christianity (he failed to convert a single one) and a period as a curate in Kent, he had his first stroke of luck. He managed to con Seebohm Rowntree, the cocoa and confectionery millionaire, into lending him £10,000 (the equivalent of more than £300,000 today), and he used Rowntree’s connections to help get the Liberal nomination for Darlington, falsifying the date of his naturalisation in order to qualify. To everyone’s amazement – except his own – Lincoln defeated the Tory candidate, Pike Pease, and was elected. He gloated over his victory: ‘They have brought out a poster in Darlington – “The foreigner’s got my job.” Well, he has got it. I am the foreigner; I have got Pike Pease’s job.’ He did not keep it for long, failing to stand again at the end of 1910, probably because he was about to be declared bankrupt.
The outbreak of war in 1914 found him trying to persuade the British to send him to the neutral Netherlands where his plan was to enlist in the German espionage network and relay to London what information he could gather. When he was turned down, he went to the Netherlands anyway and made the reverse proposition to the Germans, who also rejected him. Both intelligence services seem to have harboured the same suspicion: that Lincoln was interested in espionage for the money and would sell to the highest bidder. His next move seems to have confirmed this. He returned to London where he offered the director of Naval Intelligence, the famous ‘Blinker’ Hall, what he had been able to pick up from his dealings with the Germans. But Hall was too wily a bird to be snared by the likes of Lincoln and had his background investigated. There followed an embarrassing interview in which Hall left Lincoln in no doubt what he thought about him and his unsavoury past. Like all confidence tricksters, Lincoln was deeply shocked that someone had failed to trust him. His career in Britain was now in ruins, so he took off for the United States, where he persuaded a gullible press to publish his story. He presented himself as one of the world’s greatest master-spies who had worked for the Germans to revenge himself for the slights he had suffered in Britain. He seems to have briefly convinced the FBI that he would be useful to them in decrypting German codes, but after he failed to deliver, the Americans agreed to his extradition to Britain. There, charged with forgery, he served three years in prison. On his release, he wrote anti-British articles for German publications, which helped him gain entry to German rightwing circles. He may have met Hitler in Berlin at the time of the brief Kapp Putsch in March 1920. But the evidence is tainted because a report by Hitler on his visit to Berlin at that time – one used by German historians – could be a forgery by the same man who perpetrated the ‘Hitler diaries’ sting, Konrad Kujau. What a team they would have made.
Until Lincoln became a Buddhist monk in 1931, he seems to have kept going by attaching himself to various extreme political movements, winning their confidence, stealing their archives, and then offering to sell them to interested governments. Finally, with all Europe too hot for him, he moved to China and got up to much the same sort of thing with various Chinese warlords. As a Buddhist monk he used the name Chao Kung, later prefixing it with the words ‘The Venerable’. He returned to Europe on missionary work, but on landing in Liverpool he was detained by immigration authorities who kept him in gaol before deporting him to Canada. He settled in Shanghai, where he said nice things about the Japanese and tried to persuade German agents that he could be of use to them: he almost convinced one that he could stir up trouble for the British in India by shortwave radio broadcasts from Tibet. Lincoln died in Shanghai general hospital in 1943 after an operation for an intestinal complaint. He was 64. He had led a worthless life. What else can one say of a man who used the occasion of the hanging of his son for murder as a means of putting pressure on the British Government to let him live in Britain again? In Professor Wasserstein’s account I can detect only two areas worth discussing: the relationship between Lincoln and the British Foreign Office, and the fascination Lincoln exercised on the press.
Wasserstein’s quotations from the Foreign Office records indicate the huge amount of time and energy FO officials devoted to the business of Lincoln – replying courteously to his letters, minuting each other about him (‘Every move this man makes is more amazing than the last’), making recommendations to ministers, circulating advice to British embassies, and keeping his file up-to-date. As Wasserstein points out, the Foreign Office wanted its representatives overseas simultaneously to ignore Lincoln and to keep an eye on him. The question is why. Once Lincoln had been exposed as a confidence trickster, why didn’t the Foreign Office treat him as ‘Blinker’ Hall had done – give him a good fright and show him the door? My tentative theory is that they handled Lincoln the way they did because of reverse discrimination. Lincoln was a Hungarian Jew. The Foreign Office became so anxious to show that it harboured not a trace of xenophobia or anti-semitism that it treated Lincoln far better than it would have done a native-born Englishman. A Hungarian official, on being introduced to him, took aside the colleague who had made the introduction and said: ‘Colonel, your dark, fat friend is a Jew – I don’t feel safe in talking in front of him.’
About the press, I am more confident. In the eternal human dramas newspapers feed their readers, heroes are easy to come by, villains less so. (They have a propensity to sue, for one thing.) A permanent representative of evil who does not care what you say about him – as long as you say something – is a godsend to editors. Lincoln was such a person. On 16 December 1928 the Empire News ran this story:
Somewhere in the wild hills of Afghanistan, up the rocky slopes by the cave-dwellers, perched high by the banks of mountain streams, a gaunt holy man wearing the symbols of the pilgrim and the man of prayer proceeds along his lonely pilgrimage. He is Col. T.E. Lawrence, the most mysterious man in the Empire.
The battle is now joined between the Apostle of Hatred and the Apostle of Peace. Trebitsch Lincoln, ex-spy, ex-British MP, ex-forger, the tool of the Soviet Government in China, has gold and rifles. Hillsmen love both. Lawrence has unknown resources and a silver tongue.
Lawrence was certainly in India at the time, serving as a clerk under the name of Shaw at a station near the Afghan border. The idea of Lawrence, the Imperial Hero, doing undercover work among the Afghani tribesmen had obvious appeal to Fleet Street. But who could Lawrence be fighting against? Who was to play the villain? The ubiquitous Trebitsch Lincoln.
From the outset Professor Wasserstein’s wife disapproved of his writing a biography of Lincoln. She was right. He should keep away from the Bodleian on rainy August afternoons.