The Multiple Lives of Ignatius Trebitsch-Lincoln

Posted: May 20, 2013 in History


“Chao Kung” (aka Trebitsch-Lincoln) in Shanghai, 1943. Image courtesy of

“I.T. Trebitsch-Lincoln came to see me this morning; he was dressed as a Buddhist monk, and now calls himself Chao Kung. He told me he had been a Buddhist for about 6 years, and was the first foreigner to become a monk, which gave him great influence in Buddhist circles.” British Consulate-General Shanghai, 1931.

So begins a document I discovered in Foreign Office Files for China about one of the most colourful, adventurous and deceitful men of the 20th century. By the time of his death in 1943, Trebitsch-Lincoln had worked as a British Member of Parliament, a Protestant Missionary, an Anglican Priest, a spy, a revolutionary, a right-wing propagandist for Nazi Germany and Japan, and a Buddhist Abbot in China. Not bad for a Jewish boy from a small town in Hungary.

Trebitsch-Lincoln was born in 1879 to an Orthodox Jewish family. He showed an interest in acting early on, enrolling in the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art as soon as he left school. His theatrical training came in handy when he absconded to England and managed to befriend the Archbishop of Canterbury, talk leading British industrialist Seebohm Rowntree into giving him a job, and stand for MP in Darlington despite being a Hungarian citizen. After being deported from the UK for trying to spy for Germany during WWI (and then selling his story to the press), he infiltrated the extreme right-wing of Weimar Germany. He even met Adolf Hitler during the Kapp Putsch – a failed coup attempt which forced him to flee to Austria and finally China.

By the time Trebitsch-Lincoln visited the British Consulate-General in Shanghai in 1931 he was famous around the world. When he applied for permission to visit the UK he sparked a flurry of correspondence between Shanghai and Whitehall. One file contains a detailed chronology of his global travels. Between 1923 and 1930 he circumnavigated the earth, travelling under six different names and three different nationalities.

While he undoubtedly succumbed to the myth of his own mystery, he also became weary of his constant deceiving. “I could easily have forged a passport but all this lying is against the principles of Buddhism,” he wrote to the Foreign Office. Do we believe him? The Foreign Office didn’t. I imagine even Trebitsch-Lincoln had doubts. When you live a dozen lives it must difficult to know your own name, let alone your principles.

This was originally posted on the blog of Adam Matthew:


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