Richard Sorge: The master spy who helped alter the course of WW2

January 7, 2016 Ajay Kamalakaran, RBTH
A German-origin Soviet spy managed to run a highly successful ring in Japan in the 1930s and 40s. After ignoring his warnings of an imminent German attack in 1941, the USSR relied on Richard Sorge’s inputs to plan its defense strategy.
Richard Sorge
Richard Sorge, 1940. Source: Wikipedia

For almost two decades after the end of the Second World War, a great hero remained unsung in the Soviet Union. In 1963, Nikita Khrushchev saw a French film titled Who are you, Mr Sorge?, which was based on the remarkable life of Soviet master spy Richard Sorge.  According to eminent scholar and historian Stuart D. Goldman, the Soviet leader asked the KGB whether the story was true, and when it was confirmed, Sorge was posthumously awarded the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union.’

Sorge, born to a German father and Russian mother in Baku (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1895, was probably the most successful international spy of the 20th century. His family moved to Germany a few years after his birth and he was raised in an upper middle class German household, but historians agree that his Russian roots had a deep impression on Sorge from a young age.

He joined the German Army before the First World War, and was even awarded the Iron Cross. After being discharged due to injuries, Sorge came across the works of Karl Marx and became a socialist. He completed his doctorate in 1919, and joined the German Communist Party.  Over the next few years, Sorge was involved in several Leftist agitations.

Facing trouble with the German authorities, Sorge escaped to the Soviet Union in 1924.  He joined Comintern, a Soviet setup that worked with communist parties abroad. His first stint as a military intelligence officer was in China in the early 1930s.

He had already developed a reputation as a womanizer by then. “Sorge was both handsome and charismatic, irresistible to women and admired by men,” Stuart Goldman wrote in an article for the History Net website.  Sorge would marry a Russian theatre actress, but have several lovers.

Japan’s annexation of Manchuria in 1932 made Moscow uneasy about Japanese designs on the Soviet Far East. Sorge was tasked with setting up a network in Japan to understand Tokyo’s intentions towards the Soviet Union.

A newspaper editor in Germany agreed to send Sorge to Japan as a correspondent. The editor even sent an introductory letter to Colonel Eugen Ott, the German military attaché in Tokyo.  This turned out to be a perfect cover for Sorge. Ott, who would later become Germany’s ambassador to Japan, unwittingly helped Sorge set up a network in Tokyo, and become one of his best informants over the next few years.

Sorge’s network included Hotsumi Ozaki, a China-specialist and leftwing journalist, who worked for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper

Sorge lived near a police station in Tokyo and was often seen in public being loud, drunk, and with a coterie of women. Some historians believe that Sorge even had an affair with Ott’s wife. The German ambassador apparently let it go since he needed Ott’s advice on the Japanese political scene, according to some accounts.

<i>Who are you, Mr Sorge?</i>, Soviet poster. Source: kinopoisk.ruWho are you, Mr Sorge?, 1961, Soviet poster. Source: kinopoisk.ru

Major revelations

One of Sorge’s first successes as a spy in Japan was finding out about German-Japanese negotiations for the anti-Comintern Pact, which was directed against the Soviet Union.

Sorge’s 1939 alert that Japan was trying to convince Germany to form an anti-Soviet military alliance led Joseph Stalin to push for the negotiations with Berlin that resulted in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This essentially killed any immediate chance of a two-front attack on the Soviet Union by Japan and Germany.

As early as December 1940, Sorge warned of a potential German attack on the Soviet Union. According to a book titled Stalin’s Spy by Robert Whymant, Sorge informed Moscow on May 30, 1941 that a German attack would commence in the last week of June.

Stalin chose to ignore the warnings and called Sorge a “bastard who set up factories and brothels in Japan.” Historians debate whether the exact date of Operation Barbarossa was passed on to Moscow by Sorge.  Once the attack did take place, Stalin started to take the master spy seriously.

An attack by Japan in the Soviet Far East at the same time as a German attack on the European front would have had disastrous consequences.  However, Japan, which was fighting a war in China, had to choose between attacking the USSR or the French, British and Dutch colonies in Asia.

Hotsumi Ozaki, being close to the Japanese government, helped Sorge assess the threat from Japan. Sorge informed Moscow that Tokyo would focus on the southern front and would only attack Russia if the Red Army suffered a quick defeat against Nazi Germany. The master spy also managed to get confirmation from Ott that Germany failed to convince Japan to immediately attack the Soviet Union.

Based on this information, the Soviet Union moved 15 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, 1,700 tanks, and 1,500 aircraft from the Far East to the European front in November 1941, according to Stuart Goldman. “It was these powerful reinforcements that turned the tide in the Battle of Moscow in the first week of December 1941, at the same time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor,” he wrote in the History Net article.

Arrest by the Japanese

Sorge’s clandestine radio messages, which were enciphered with one-time pads (a Soviet encryption technique) sounded like gibberish to the Japanese secret police. However they grew suspicious of him and were finally able to catch Sorge after getting a Gestapo officer at the German embassy to spy on him.

Other accounts suggest a dressmaker recruited by a sub-agent of Ozaki was arrested and named the members of the ring. Sorge was arrested in October 1941.  He agreed to cooperate with the authorities if they agreed to not arrest his lover Hanako Iishi and the wives of his colleagues.  The Japanese agreed to this condition.

He was imprisoned for 3 years, and the Japanese offered to exchange him for a Japanese prisoner in the USSR.  But the Soviets denied they knew Sorge.  The return of Sorge to the Soviet Union would have been an embarrassment for Stalin, who ignored his warnings of a German attack.

In 1944, Sorge and Ozaki were executed. Sorge’s lover Iishi was left alone and later received a Soviet pension.

The Soviet’s spy’s list of admirers included English writer and naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming. “Sorge was the man whom I regard as the most formidable spy in history,” Fleming said about the man who was probably a source of inspiration for the James Bond novels.

Subscribe to RBTH's Asia-related content

* indicates required
+
Like us on Facebook