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Sun 8 December 2019
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John Mitchinson on the life and times of Ignácz Lincoln and the prescient lessons our politicians can take from his grisly demise.

In the current political climate, where the gap between what politicians say and what they do seems to widen as each day passes, it is useful to be reminded of the remarkable career of Ignácz Lincoln, an MP whose capacity for mendacity and self-delusion makes Boris Johnson look like Gandhi.

Ignácz Trebitsch was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in the small town of Paks in central Hungary in 1879.

As a teenager, he lied to get into drama school and dropped out after a year. Falsehood, charm and the inability to stick to one course of action were to be the hallmarks of his career.

As Chao Kung, he rose to the high rank of Bodhisattva and became the first Westerner to found his own Buddhist monastery in the East.

Soon afterwards, Trebitsch appeared in London where he converted to Christianity, becoming a Protestant missionary and, for a brief period, served as an Anglican curate in Appledore, Kent, adding ‘Lincoln’ to his name by deed poll to make himself sound more English.

In 1904, I.T.T. Lincoln (having failed the exams for the priesthood) became a research assistant to Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, Quaker philanthropist, Liberal grandee and confectionery magnate.

Rowntree was impressed by Lincoln’s energy and used his influence with the Liberal Party to have him adopted as its candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Darlington for the General Election of January 1910.

Endorsed by Churchill and Lloyd George, he won by the slender margin of 29 votes but, as MPs were unpaid at the time, he was soon in considerable debt.


When a second General Election was called in December, he stood down, pleading insolvency.

This freed him up to concentrate on a more straightforward career as a stock market fraudster and forger.

All the companies he started collapsed and he fled to the US to avoid prosecution for fraud, but not before offering his services to the German Government. Upon his arrival in America, he sold his story to the press – the British MP-turned-German master spy.

He was eventually extradited and convicted, escaped from jail, was extradited again, imprisoned again, and was finally stripped of his British citizenship in 1919 and deported.

Falsehood, charm and the inability to stick to one course of action were to be the hallmarks of his career.

This time he chose Germany and – despite being Jewish – joined the unsuccessful right-wing army putsch of 1920. He not only met Hitler, but for a few days became Minister of Information – the only former British MP ever to serve as a member of a German Government.

In the fall-out after the failed coup, Lincoln decided to forsake Europe and reinvented himself in China by converting to Buddhism and becoming a monk.  

As Chao Kung, he rose to the high rank of Bodhisattva and became the first Westerner to found his own Buddhist monastery in the East.

His final undoing was his – you guessed – a promise he couldn’t keep: to deliver every Buddhist in the East to the German/Japanese cause.

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When the Japanese invaded Shanghai in October 1943, Lincoln/Chao Kung was arrested and poisoned at the request of the Nazi high command. Even they had finally run out of patience with his lies.

Contemporary politicians take heed: there’s a lesson in there somewhere…

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.

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