Former Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg, who headed the German propaganda team within the Secret War Council in the United States between 1914 and 1915

Former Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg, who headed the German propaganda team within the Secret War Council in the United States between 1914 and 1915

Sommerfeld’s efforts to enlist German support behind the Villa faction continued as the northern military chieftain ran out of funds and military successes. Intensive meetings with Bernhard Dernburg, the former German colonial minister and highest ranking German official in the U.S. at the time, led to an astonishing communication from his “friend, Mr. Felix A. Sommerfeld” with the German War Office which would have grave consequences: The Sommerfeld-Dernburg memorandum went to Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff on May 15, 1915 (to shortly become the head of the admiralty), and made the rounds in the German government, including Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and members of the German Admiralty. Next to the sabotage order from January 1915, this document is perhaps the most remarkable piece of evidence regarding German strategy towards the U.S. in the neutrality period between 1914 and 1917. Historian Friedrich Katz first discovered its existence in the 1970s.


Because of my friend, Mr. Felix A. Sommerfeld, German citizen, did I gain knowledge of the different [munitions] contracts [of the Allies in the U.S.] in the beginning of the war… Felix A. Sommerfeld proposed to have the infantry cartridge 7mm… manufactured. The infantry cartridge Mauser 7mm could then be sold off to South American countries and Spain, which are all using this make, and that profitably… Felix A. Sommerfeld is intimately familiar with Mexican politics for the last four years, was adviser and confidential agent of President Madero in all diplomatic missions and currently holds the same position with General Villa and had since been commissioned to procure munitions and war supplies here in the United States [for him]. As a result, he knows all factories and their capacities. Ever since Sommerfeld, who is an excellent patriot, has been trying his best to find out what can be done to support Germany.

All contracts of the arms manufacturers contain a clause, which relegates the agreement null and void in the event of the United States entering into a war. The policies of the United States towards Mexico are widely known and one can be completely sure that the government of the United States will do whatever it can to prevent an intervention in Mexico. The military leadership of the United States, however, is very much in favor of an intervention, as well as the state governments of Texas and Arizona, that are bordering on Mexico. A few months ago an incident occurred at the Mexican border in Arizona [Naco] that almost resulted in an intervention. At this time the chief of the General Staff [Hugh Lenox Scott] at the insistence of Secretary of War Garrison was sent to the border to negotiate with General Villa. These negotiations took place through the mediation of Felix A. Sommerfeld, and at that time, as he told me multiple times, it would have been easy to provoke an intervention. Such an event at this time would mean the following for Germany:

An embargo on all munitions for the Allies, and since everyone knows that the Allies are completely dependent on American munitions and war supplies, [it would mean] a quick success for Germany, credits for the Allies would be restricted and, additionally, the policies of the United States would be distracted, another fact that would be to Germany’s advantage.

…Felix A. Sommerfeld had misgivings at the time to force an intervention through General Villa since he did not know the intentions of Germany towards the United States…

This issue seems to become relevant again in the near term and Felix A. Sommerfeld discussed it with me. He is completely convinced that an intervention in Mexico by the United States can be provoked…

After acknowledgement of this report I request that through any means at your disposal or through me Mr. Felix A. Sommerfeld be given a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ [for his proposal to provoke an intervention]…


The answer arrived a few days later, after the Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow saw the report:


In my opinion, the answer is absolutely ‘yes.’ Even if the shipments of munitions cannot be stopped, and I am not sure they can, it would be highly desirable for America to become involved in a war and be diverted from Europe… an intervention made necessary by the developments in Mexico would be the only [emphasis added] possible diversion for the American government. Moreover, since we can at this time do nothing in the Mexican situation, an American intervention would also be the best thing possible for our interests there.


Sommerfeld had presented a plan that the German Imperial Foreign Secretary and, most likely as a result of the importance of the proposal, the German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg personally had signed off on. The answer from Henning von Holtzendorff underlines the timing of Sommerfeld’s proposal. The Imperial German cabinet was mired in discussions on how or if – to proceed with the commerce war using the submarine. Hardline proponents guaranteed a victory over England within six months, while the moderate wing of the cabinet, including Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, doubted that the submarine fleet even had enough boats to effectively blockade England. The logical consequence of an American declaration of war in case of unrestricted submarine warfare seemed too risky to the moderates, given the uncertainties of the strategy’s effectiveness.

The debate raged even louder in May as a result of the sinking of the Lusitania. The hardline group saw the Lusitania sinking as Abschreckung, a means to scare commerce traffic away from British harbors. The subsequent guarantees of the German government to President Wilson that submarines would, henceforth, observe cruiser rules and not sink passenger ships, led to a rift in the cabinet. Chief of the Admiralty Bachmann and Grand Admiral von Tirpitz openly opposed von Bethmann Hollweg and the Emperor and offered their resignations, which the Kaiser did not grant, initially. He was fired in August when Admiral Bachmann opposed the moderates again, while von Tirpitz was put on ice. The new Chief of the Admiralty was Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff.

Just as tempers flared in Berlin, Sommerfeld proposed a way out of the dilemma. Rather than having to decide now whether to risk a war with the United States or give up the unrestricted submarine war the navy demanded, he sought to create certain conditions in the United States that would end the threat of an effective American impact on the European war. Dernburg chose von Holtzendorff, who was then still retired, because his views regarding the submarine fleet were moderate and acceptable to Wilhelm II and von Bethmann Hollweg. Von Holtzendorff explained to the chancellor and the foreign secretary that if Sommerfeld’s proposal worked, American attention would be diverted and munitions kept from the Allies at the same time, while unrestricted submarine warfare could be re-launched. He wrote that an American intervention in Mexico would have an added benefit of also reestablishing order of whatever definition. The appointment of von Holtzendorff in August insured that Sommerfeld’s plan would be enacted. The Secret War Council was to create a strategic window in which unrestricted submarine warfare could be enacted and the war brought to a favorable conclusion.

Read the whole story in my new book Felix A.Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War!