The biography of a German spymaster in Mexico during the tumultuous early 1900s.
Born in 1879 in Germany, Sommerfeld was the fourth son of a middle class Jewish couple. His early life was fraught with questionable decisions and adventures across the globe: He stole money from his brother’s landlord in the U.S., joined the U.S. Army to fight in the Spanish-American War only to drop out and make his way to China to fight during the Boxer Rebellion. When he was done with battlefields, he returned to the U.S. and attempted to become a prospector in the West but ended up back in Chicago, broke. Though von Feilitzsch assiduously researched his subject’s life, he admits that there are holes in history’s account, including that no one knows exactly where Sommerfeld was from 1906–1908. The author speculates that during this time Sommerfeld could have traveled to Germany for secret-service training. What is known is that this enigmatic figure worked as a German informant (he posed as a mining engineer and then an Associated Press reporter) in Chihuahua, Mexico, starting in 1908. When Francisco Madero overthrew Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, Sommerfeld’s spy career quickly began to take shape. He positioned himself as Mexico’s chief of secret service and helped put down uprisings and overthrow rebellions. In 1913, he traveled to Washington, D.C., and liaised with chief weapons buyers. This in-depth biography takes readers up to the year 1914, carefully detailing the shifting reigns and unrest of Mexico during these years. Fans of Latin American history and global politics during this time period are sure to appreciate von Feilitzch’s illuminating attention to detail. Unfortunately, since Sommerfeld was so elusive, von Feilitzch has a hard time truly capturing his character. The epilogue allows him to flesh out Sommerfeld’s personality somewhat, but rather frustratingly the spymaster’s intents and motives remain largely a mystery.
A well-researched historical account.