An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent
“Owen Matthews’ new biography of Sorge provides revealing insights into the character and accomplishments of a man that Ian Fleming called ‘the most formidable spy in history.’”
The most decisive theater of the Second World War was Europe’s eastern front. Had Hitler defeated the Soviet Union and conquered what geopoliticans call the Eurasian Heartland, his domination of the continent would have been secured. It is only in that context that the achievements of Soviet spy Richard Sorge and his Tokyo-based espionage network in the 1930s and early 1940s can be fully understood.
Soviet survival after Hitler’s invasion in June 1941 hinged on Japan’s decision to expand to the north and east or to the south and west. More critically, it depended on reliable intelligence information about Japan’s intentions so that Soviet officials could safely shift troops, weapons, and supplies to the struggle against Germany.
Owen Matthews’ new biography of Sorge provides revealing insights into the character and accomplishments of a man that Ian Fleming called “the most formidable spy in history.” Matthews calls Sorge “a bad man who became a great spy—indeed one of the greatest spies who ever lived.”
Sorge, he writes, was a “pedant, a drunk, and a womanizer.” He was undisciplined, seduced the wives of friends and colleagues, and brilliantly practiced the art of deception.
Richard Sorge was born in Baku, Russia, in 1895. His father, Wilhelm Sorge, was a German drilling engineer who had spent time in Pennsylvania’s oilfields before seeking his fortune in the oilfields of the Caucuses. When Richard Sorge was five years old the family moved back to Lichterfelde, a suburb of Berlin.
Richard Sorge volunteered to serve in Imperial Germany’s army in the First World War. He was wounded three times during the war and saw first-hand the useless slaughter of the Western front. “Like many of his class and generation,” Matthews writes, “Sorge’s experience of war was profoundly formative, and shocking.” Two of his brothers died in combat. The war led Sorge to embrace communism.
Matthews notes that toward the end of the war after Sorge was discharged from the army for medical reasons, he became a revolutionary, reading, writing, and lecturing on Marxism in Kiel, home of the German Navy. Sorge got caught up in Germany’s revolution as the Kaiser’s regime crumbled.
Sorge joined the German Communist Party and began to write for the Party’s newspaper. Soon, the German Social Democratic government, which had taken power after the Kaiser abdicated, crushed the revolutionists of the far left and restored order. It was the beginning of the ill-fated Weimar Republic.
More important for the course of Sorge’s career, Matthews notes, the German Communist Party was gradually taken over by the Soviet-controlled Comintern, Lenin’s instrument of world revolution. From that point forward, Sorge worked for Moscow.
His first job for Moscow was with the Comintern’s Department of Information in the early 1920s. He later joined the International Communications Section, which oversaw a worldwide espionage network. Sorge was by all accounts an impressive writer. He would become an even more impressive spy.
Eventually, Sorge was recruited by General Jan Karlovich Berzin, head of the Soviet Red Army General Staff’s Fourth Directorate, to work in the Far East. It was there that Sorge achieved his greatest feats of intelligence gathering and espionage. His codename was “Ramsay.”
Matthews skillfully sets the geopolitical scene of the Far East in the 1930s. China was in the midst of a struggle for power between the Kuomintang, the Communists, and independent warlords. Japan, recognizing China’s internal divisions, expanded into Manchuria, setting up a puppet state called Manchukuo in 1931. Later in 1937, Japan exploited an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge to launch a full-scale invasion of China.
Meanwhile, Stalin subjected the Soviet Union to what Robert Conquest called the Great Terror, a massive purge of the Communist Party leadership, the military, and the intelligence services. On the diplomatic scene, the Soviets sought to delay a war against Germany, avoid a war against Japan, and, above all, avert a two-front war.
Sorge was sent to Shanghai, which Matthews describes as “Asia’s espionage capital” in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Shanghai was one of several illegal spy centers in China and elsewhere (Paris, New York, Marseilles, Prague, Warsaw, Danzig, Vilnius, Helsinki) established by the Soviet Red Army’s Fourth Directorate.
In Shanghai, Sorge worked as a writer and journalist; that was his “cover” under which he spied for the Soviet Union. It was there that he met Agnes Smedley, an American writer sympathetic to the communist cause in China. They quickly became lovers—Sorge had many lovers during his espionage career. Smedley agreed to help Sorge establish an intelligence-gathering cell in Shanghai.
In May 1930, Sorge, Smedley, Max Clausen (Sorge’s radio man), and others in the group moved to Canton. Using sources developed by Smedley and others, Sorge, Matthews writes, “reported to Moscow on troop movements, military maneuvers, command structures,” and other relevant information about the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist forces under Mao Zedong.
After Japan’s takeover of Manchuria in 1931, Soviet intelligence sought to learn Japan’s ultimate intentions. Would they invade the Soviet Union’s vulnerable Far Eastern provinces or would they move in another direction? That question, Matthews notes, “would be central to Sorge’s mission for the next decade.”
One of Sorge’s most important recruits was Hotsumi Ozaki, a Japanese journalist who developed “unrivaled contacts among the Japanese diplomatic and business community in Shanghai and the Kuomintang authorities but also, secretly, with the Chinese Communist Party.”
Sorge’s most important and consequential assignment for Moscow was in Tokyo. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, having previously spelled out his intentions in Mein Kampf to expand to the east. Japan had recently moved into Manchuria and posed a threat to the Soviet Far East. Stalin rightly feared a two-front war.
To prepare for this posting, Sorge returned to Berlin as a journalist and writer. He continued to write for German papers and even contributed to Zeitschrift fur Geopolitik (Journal of Geopolitics), an influential publication founded by Dr. Karl Haushofer, the director of Munich’s Institute for Geopolitics and one of Germany’s top experts on Japan. To improve his cover, Sorge joined the Nazi Party.
In Tokyo, where Sorge arrived in 1933, he began to form the spy ring whose job was to uncover Japan’s expansionist aims. The Sorge spy ring eventually penetrated both the Japanese government and the German Embassy in Tokyo. This enabled Sorge to provide useful intelligence about both Japanese and German war plans.
The two most momentous pieces of intelligence obtained by the Sorge spy ring and transmitted to Moscow involved Germany’s plans to invade the Soviet Union and Japan’s plans to attack Indochina, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. The Soviet Union suffered greatly when Stalin refused to believe Sorge’s warning about Operation Barbarossa, but it ultimately survived Hitler’s invasion and was victorious in part because Stalin believed Sorge’s intelligence on the intended targets of Japan’s aggression.
Stalin had received multiple warnings from U.S. and British intelligence and his own people about Hitler’s invasion plans, but chose to view them as provocations instead of reliable intelligence. Matthews writes that Stalin believed war with Germany was inevitable, but wanted to delay it until at least 1943, when he believed Soviet Russia would be better prepared.
By September 1941, with Soviet forces reeling in the face of the German blitzkrieg attack, the Soviet leadership, writes Matthews, “finally began to trust Sorge’s information,” which was confirmed by Soviet codebreakers. That month, Sorge’s spy ring reported that Japan would strike south, not north and east toward Soviet territory. There would be no two-front war. Siberian troops were swiftly redeployed to the defense of European Russia. The German invasion stalled at the gates of Moscow and the Russian winter set in.
Matthews concludes that Sorge’s “brilliant work played a crucial role in saving the Soviet Union from disaster in 1941 and enabled Stalin’s eventual victory in 1945.” Just how crucial Sorge’s information was to the Soviet war effort is still debated by historians.
Sorge and several members of his spy ring, however, did not live to see that victory. Japanese police and intelligence officers eventually closed in on the spy ring. Sorge and his confederates were arrested. Sorge was interrogated on 50 occasions by Japanese officials, and finally confessed. He was convicted of violating Japan’s National Defense Security Law in 1942, and subsequently hanged on November 7, 1944. Stalin’s regime did nothing to help him.
Matthews notes that much later during the Khrushchev “thaw,” Sorge was made a posthumous Hero of the Soviet Union. A street in Moscow and a warship were named after him.
Sorge “had courage, great courage,” Matthews writes. He was “brave, brilliant and relentless.” But it must never be forgotten that the qualities and talents that Matthews admires in Sorge were used in the service of a horrific ideology and one of the worst tyrants in history.