It’s the climax to a classic adventure movie. Indiana Jones is lashed to a post on a mountaintop on an Aegean island. A leering, leather-jacketed Nazi watches the opening of the Ark of the Covenant, which the Germans believe contains the secret that will allow them to build a Thousand-Year Reich. Beautiful, spirit-like beings rise into the sky. Exultation turns to horror as the apparitions morph into angels of death. The Gestapo agent’s head shrivels and melts like a ball of wax in a blast furnace. Only Indy and his companion survive the supernatural onslaught unscathed.

The finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark may be pure Hollywood fantasy, but the Nazi fascination with the supernatural is based in solid fact. Hitler’s correspondence with psychics is well-documented. SS leader Heinrich Himmler subscribed to a cultish system called “anthroposophism,” and believed he was the reincarnation of an ancient king. Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess relied on astrology to determine the dates of major offensives. Even more incredibly, the Nazis came close to enlisting one of the world’s most infamous occult leaders to help them win the war.

The Abbot Chao Kung, as he styled himself, was better known to the world as Trebitsch Lincoln. In his early career as a German and English double agent, Trebitsch had earned a reputation as the “Olympian of Scoundrelism” in the newspapers and newsreels of five continents. By the 1930s, he had turned Shanghai’s International Settlement, then a notorious haven for adventurers and charlatans, into the headquarters of the shadowy League of Truth. Its symbol was a mirror-image swastika superimposed on the globe. Its goal was the complete overthrow of the British Empire. And its leader—who dressed in long robes and had 12 stars, representing the spokes of the Wheel of Becoming, tattooed on his shaved skull—travelled the world with an entourage of mostly female European disciples (the younger of whom he made into his mistresses).

In 1941, the hypnotic Trebitsch even convinced the chief Gestapo man in China—Josef Meisinger, a.k.a. the “Butcher of Warsaw”—to arrange a personal meeting with Hitler himself.

The instant he was alone with the Führer in Berlin, Trebitsch informed Meisinger, three wise men of Tibet—part of the secret government that really ruled the world—would materialize out of the wall. Only then would these Himalayan holy men reveal the occult secret that would allow Germany to dominate the world, he said.

Lincoln preaching as a Presbyterian minister to Jews of Montreal, 1901. Image credit: McCord Museum

Just who was this self-styled Axis super-weapon? Oddly enough, he started life as Ignácz Trebitsch, in an obscure town on the banks of the Danube River, as the son of a rabbi. A wave of anti-Semitism among Hungarian peasants drove his family to the city, where the 16-year-old, declaring he’d lost all interest in Judaism, began to linger in the playhouses of fin-de-siècle Budapest. After lying about his age so he could enroll in the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Arts, however, he failed to attend a single class. Instead, he spent his afternoons in cafés, penning accounts of adventures he’d never actually had in the jungles of South America, and selling them to local newspapers as bona fide travel stories.

His career in infamy began with a single act of betrayal. Pocketing a gold watch found on the table of his married sister’s apartment, he sold it and fled across the English Channel, where he stayed in a hostel run by Anglican missionaries fishing for the souls of Jewish immigrants. Trebitsch rewarded his hosts by stealing another watch—and this time around, a passport—and returning to the Continent. In Germany he married the widowed daughter of a ship’s captain in the hopes of securing a substantial dowry. 

He next appeared sporting pince-nez glasses and a clergyman’s collar in turn-of-the-century Quebec, in the guise of the Reverend J.T. Trebitsch. He’d been baptized a Lutheran in Hamburg before crossing the Atlantic to Canada, where he was put to work distributing Yiddish-language bibles to uninterested—and often outright hostile—Jewish immigrants in the snowy streets of Montreal for a Presbyterian missionary. But when he learned his bride’s inheritance would be tiny, he returned to England, financing the trip with hundreds of dollars loaned to him by fellow missionaries—money they would never see again.

After a brief stint as a curate in the tiny parish of Appledore-in-Ebony, England, Trebitsch was elected to the House of Commons under the name “I.T.T. Lincoln” (inspired, he would later explain to an interviewer, by his esteem for the honesty of Abraham Lincoln). Frustrated by the low wages of a Parliamentarian, he forged a signature to underwrite a sure-fire scheme to get rich on Romanian oil wells—none of which turned out to have any oil left in them. From that point on, his penchant for larceny and fraud, coupled with a limitless need for attention, would triumph over any desire for respectability.

Trebitsch Lincoln, international man of mystery, was born.

Screaming headlines tracked his movements around the globe. Jailed in Brooklyn, he managed to escape from his captors (after asking to use the bathroom in a restaurant on Fulton Street and never returning). He then pedaled widely exaggerated stories of his spying for Germany’s kaiser to New York’s yellow press. The series of articles published in the New York World was compiled in a self-aggrandizing 1916 book titled Revelations of an International Spy. Trading on his growing reputation as a master of intrigue, he talked his way into the heart of a cadre of incompetent right-wing revolutionaries who briefly took control of Germany. (In Berlin, he would shake hands with a young Adolf Hitler, who flew up from Munich—the first time the future Führer had been in a plane—to participate in the putsch).

By then, though, Trebitsch was in over his head. Stalked by Hungarian assassins, he fled to a land that was still wide-open to adventurers: lawless China, then a failed state ruled by warlords.

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On October 27, 1925, while staying at the Astor House in Tientsin, he claimed to have undergone a transformative mystical experience.

“I made the great renunciation,” he would later write of his epiphany. “I quit the world. I forced the doors of the lunatic asylum and—walked out.” At a monastery in the hills outside Nanking, he officially completed—with days of fasting, chanting, and painful tattooing—his transformation into the Venerable Chao Kung.

Grasping the rise of fascism in Europe, and witnessing the Japanese surrounding the Shanghai enclave he had made his home, Trebitsch began to focus all his energy on arranging a second meeting with Hitler in 1939. Taking advantage of the death of his spiritual leader, Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest-ranking lama, Trebitsch also had the effrontery to declare himself the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. He managed to impress Germans enough that Meisinger sent a cable to Germany recommending the Führer grant him an audience.

The telegram, as it turned out, arrived too late. A week earlier, Rudolf Hess, the Third Reich’s main champion of the occult, had made a solo flight to Scotland—apparently following the advice of an astrologer—where he was taken prisoner. Hitler, enraged at his deputy’s betrayal, ordered Himmler to undertake a crackdown on mystics. Meisinger was severely reprimanded for even mentioning the League of Truth. The meeting with Hitler never took place.

By the time the United States entered the war, the Abbot Chao Kung was a familiar figure in Shanghai’s Public Gardens. One day, an unemployed reporter sitting at the gardens speculated aloud to a friend about how long it would take for the British to win the war.

Trebitsch, who was sitting on a neighboring bench, astonished the reporter by delivering an anti-English tirade with monkish solemnity.

“One day I will walk in the ruins of London,” hissed Trebitsch. “I will see you a conquered race. You deserve all that the future is going to heap on you.”

The reporter would later learn the motivation for such hatred. Trebitsch’s favorite son, whom he had abandoned at a young age, had been hanged in England after accidentally murdering a man in a drunken robbery.

Trebitsch Lincoln—a.k.a. Ignácz Trebitsch, a.k.a. I.T.T. Lincoln, a.k.a. the Venerable Chao Kung—spent his last months in a tiny room in the YMCA on Shanghai’s Bubbling Well Road. The self-styled occult super-weapon of the Axis died in 1943, after an operation for an intestinal complaint.

Some in the press would speculate he was poisoned by one of the many factions he had double-crossed or enraged over his long career (among them the Gestapo, British intelligence, or, less probably, Buddhist extremists). A simpler explanation is more likely. The “Olympian of Scoundrelism” was almost certainly finished off by the killer of so many in wartime China: one of the many microscopic pathogens found in Shanghai’s notoriously filthy drinking water.

Sources: 

Bernard Wasserstein, The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln

David Lampe and Laszlo Szenasi, The Self-Made Villain: A Biography of Trebitsch Lincoln

Ignatius Trebitsch-Lincoln, The Autobiography of an Adventurer

Miscellaneous British Foreign Office files

Ralph Shaw, Sin City