Richard Sorge in 1940
|Born||October 4, 1895
Baku, Russian Empire
|Died||November 7, 1944(1944-11-07) (aged 49)
Tokyo, Empire of Japan
|Allegiance|| German Empire (until 1918)
Soviet Union (starting 1920)
||Imperial German Army
Soviet Army (GRU)
|Years of service||Germany 1914–1916, USSR 1920–1941|
|Awards||Hero of the Soviet Union
Order of Lenin
Iron Cross, II class (for World War I campaign)
|Spouse(s)||Christiane Gerlach (1921–1929)|
Richard Sorge (October 4, 1895 – November 7, 1944) was a German journalist and Soviet military intelligence officer, active before and during World War II, working undercover as a German journalist in both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. His codename was "Ramsay" (Russian: Рамза́й). A number of famous personalities considered him one of the most accomplished spies.
In mid-September 1941, he informed the Soviets that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union in the near future. Various writers have speculated that this information allowed Stalin to transfer 18 divisions, 1,700 tanks, and over 1,500 aircraft from Siberia and the Far East to the Western Front against the western Axis Powers during the Battle for Moscow. However, Soviet code-breakers had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, and Moscow already knew from signals intelligence that there would be no Japanese attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.
A month later Sorge was arrested in Japan on the counts of espionage. He was tortured, forced to confess, tried, and hanged in November 1944. He was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union in 1964.
Sorge was born in the settlement of Sabunchi, a suburb of Baku, Baku Governorate of the Russian Empire (modern Azerbaijan). He was the youngest of nine children of Wilhelm Richard Sorge (d. 1907), a German mining engineer employed by the Caucasian Oil Company, and his Russian wife Nina Semionovna Kobieleva. His father's lucrative contract expired a few years later, and the family moved back to Germany. In Sorge's own words,
The one thing that made my life a little different from the average was a strong awareness of the fact that I had been born in the southern Caucasus and that we had moved to Berlin when I was very small.
Sorge describes his father as having political views that were "unmistakably nationalist and imperialist", which he shared as a young man.
Sorge enlisted in the German Army in October 1914; shortly after the outbreak of World War I. At age 18, he was posted to a field artillery battalion with the 3rd Guards Division. He served on the Western Front, and was severely wounded there in March 1916. Shrapnel cut off three of his fingers and broke both his legs, causing a lifelong limp. He was promoted to the rank of corporal, received the Iron Cross and was later medically discharged. While fighting in the war Sorge, who had started out in 1914 as a right-wing nationalist, became disillusioned by what he called the "meaninglessness" of the war, and he moved to the left.
During his convalescence he read Marx and became a communist, mainly due to the influence of the father of a nurse with whom he had developed a relationship. He spent the rest of the war studying economics at the universities of Berlin, Kiel and Hamburg. Sorge received his doctorate in political science (Dr. rer. pol.) from Hamburg in August 1919. He also joined the Communist Party of Germany. His political views, however, got him fired from both a teaching job and coal mining work. He emigrated to the Soviet Union, where he became a junior agent for the Comintern in Moscow.
Soviet military intelligence agent
Sorge was recruited as an agent for Soviet intelligence. With the cover of a journalist, he was sent to various European countries to assess the possibility of communist revolutions.
From 1920 to 1922, Sorge lived in Solingen, in present-day North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He was joined there by Christiane Gerlach, ex-wife of Dr Kurt Albert Gerlach, a wealthy communist and professor of political science in Kiel, who had taught Sorge. Christiane Gerlach later remembered about meeting Sorge for the first time: "It was as if a stroke of lightning ran through me. In this one second something awoke in me that had slumbered until now, something dangerous, dark, inescapable…." Sorge and Christiane married in May 1921. In 1922, he was relocated to Frankfurt, where he gathered intelligence about the business community. In the summer of 1923, he took part in the Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche ("First Marxist Work Week" conference) in Ilmenau. Sorge continued his work as a journalist, and also helped organize the library of the Institute for Social Research, a new Marxist think-tank in Frankfurt.
In 1924, he and Christiane moved to Moscow, where he officially joined the International Liaison Department of the Comintern, which was also an OGPU intelligence-gathering body. Apparently, Sorge's dedication to duty led to his divorce. In 1929, Sorge became part of the Red Army's Fourth Department (the later GRU, or military intelligence). He remained with the Department for the rest of his life.
In 1929, Sorge went to the United Kingdom to study the labor movement there, the status of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the country's political and economic conditions. He was instructed to remain undercover and stay out of politics.
In November 1929, Sorge was sent to Germany. He was instructed to join the Nazi Party and not associate with any left-wing activists. As cover, he got a job with the agricultural newspaper Deutsche Getreide-Zeitung.
In 1930, Sorge was sent to Shanghai. For cover he worked as the editor of a German news service and for the Frankfurter Zeitung. He contacted another agent, Max Clausen. Sorge also met the German Soviet agent Ursula Kuczynski and American journalist Agnes Smedley. Smedley, a well-known left-wing journalist, also worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung. She introduced Sorge to Hotsumi Ozaki of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun (a future Sorge recruit), and to Hanako Ishii, with whom he would become romantically involved.
As a journalist, Sorge established himself as an expert on Chinese agriculture. In this role, he travelled around the country, contacting members of the Chinese Communist Party. In January 1932, Sorge reported on fighting between Chinese and Japanese troops in the streets of Shanghai. In December he was recalled to Moscow.
Sorge returned to Moscow, where he wrote a book about Chinese agriculture. He also married Yekaterina Maximova ("Katya"), a woman he had met in China and brought back with him to Russia.
In May 1933, the GRU decided to have Sorge organize an intelligence network in Japan. He was given the code name "Ramsay" ("Рамзай" (Ramzai, Ramzay). He first went to Berlin, to renew contacts in Germany, and obtain a new newspaper assignment in Japan as cover. In September 1931, the Japanese Kwantung Army had seized the Manchuria region of China, which gave Japan a land frontier in Asia with the Soviet Union (previously the Soviet Union and Japan had only shared the island of Sakhalin). At the time, several Kwantung Army generals advocated following up the seizure of Manchuria by invading the Soviet Far East, and as the Soviets had broken the Japanese Army codes, Moscow was aware of this, causing a "major Japanese war scare" in the winter of 1931-1932. Until the mid-1930s, it was Japan rather than Germany that was considered to be the main threat by Moscow.
In Berlin, he insinuated himself into the Nazi Party and read Nazi propaganda, in particular Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Sorge attended so many beer halls with his new acquaintances that he gave up drinking so as not to say anything inappropriate. His abstinence from drinking did not make his Nazi companions suspicious. It was an example of his devotion to and absorption in his mission, as he was a heavy drinker. He later explained to Hede Massing, "That was the bravest thing I ever did. Never will I be able to drink enough to make up for this time." Later, his drinking came to undermine his work.
While in Nazi Germany, he received commissions from two newspapers, the Berliner Börsen Zeitung and the Tägliche Rundschau, to report from Japan; also the Nazi theoretical journal Geopolitik. Sorge was so successful at establishing his "cover" as an intensely Nazi journalist that when he departed Germany, Joseph Goebbels attended his farewell dinner. He went to Japan via the United States, passing through New York in August 1933.
Sorge arrived in Yokohama on 6 September 1933. After landing in Japan, Sorge became the Japan correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung. As the Frankfurter Zeitung was the most prestigious newspaper in Germany, Sorge's status as the Tokyo correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung made him in many ways the most senior German reporter in Japan. Sorge's reputation as a Nazi journalist who detested the Soviet Union served as an excellent "cover" for his espionage work. Sorge was told by his GRU superiors that his mission in Japan was to "give very careful study to the question of whether or not Japan was planning to attack the USSR". After his arrest in 1941, Sorge told his captors:
This was for many years the most important duty assigned to me and my group; it would not be far wrong to say that it was the sole object of my mission in Japan...The USSR, as it viewed the prominent role and attitude taken by the Japanese military in foreign policy after the Manchurian incident, had come to harbor a deeply implanted suspicion that Japan was planning to attack the Soviet Union, a suspicion so strong that my frequently expressed opinions to the contrary were not always fully appreciated in Moscow...
He was warned by his commanders not to have contact with the underground Japanese Communist Party or with the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo. His intelligence network in Japan included Red Army officer and radio operator Max Clausen, Hotsumi Ozaki, and two other Comintern agents, Branko Vukelić, a journalist working for the French magazine, Vu, and a Japanese journalist, Miyagi Yotoku, who was employed by the English-language newspaper, the Japan Advertiser. Max Clausen's wife Anna acted as ring courier from time to time. From summer 1937, Clausen operated under cover of his business, M Clausen Shokai, suppliers of blueprint machinery and reproduction services. The business had been set up with Soviet funds but in time became a commercial success. Ozaki was a Japanese man from a very influential family who had grown up in Taiwan (at the time a Japanese colony) and was an idealistic Sinophile who believed that Japan, which had started its modernization with the Meiji Restoration, had much to teach China. However, Ozaki was shocked by the racism of Japanese policy towards China with the Chinese being depicted as a people fit only to be slaves. Ozaki believed that the existing political system of Japan with the emperor being worshipped as a living god had to go, and to save Japan from fascism required that Japan be "reconstructed as a socialist state".
Between 1933 and 1934, Sorge formed a network of informants. His agents had contacts with senior politicians and picked up information on Japanese foreign policy. His agent Ozaki developed a close contact with Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. Ozaki copied secret documents for Sorge.
As he appeared to be an ardent Nazi, Sorge was welcome at the German Embassy. One Japanese journalist who knew Sorge described him in 1935 as "a typical, swashbuckling, arrogant Nazi...quick-tempered, hard-drinking". As the Japan correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Sorge developed a network of sources about Japanese politics, and soon German diplomats, including the ambassador Herbert von Dirksen came to depend upon Sorge as a source of intelligence about the fractious and secretive world of Japanese politics. The Japanese values of honne and tatemae (the former literally means "true sound", roughly "as things are" while the latter literally means "façade" or roughly "as things appear"), namely the tendency of Japanese people to hide their real feelings and profess to believe in things that they do not, made deciphering Japan's politics especially difficult. That Sorge was fluent in Japanese further enhanced his status as a Japanologist. Sorge was very interested in Asian history and culture, especially those of China and Japan, and when sober tried to learn as much as he could. During this time, Sorge befriended General Eugen Ott, the German military attache to Japan while seducing his wife Helma. As military attache, Ott sent reports back to Berlin containing his assessments of the Imperial Japanese Army, which Frau Ott copied and passed on to Sorge, who in his turn passed them on to Moscow (though it should be noted Frau Ott believed Sorge was merely working for the Nazi Party). As the Japanese Army had been trained by a German military mission in the 19th century, German influence on the Japanese Army was strong, and Ott had good contacts with Japanese officers.
In October 1934, General Ott and Sorge made an extended visit to the sham-independent "Empire of Manchukuo", which was actually a Japanese colony, and Sorge, who knew the Far East far better than Ott, wrote up the report describing Manchukuo that Ott submitted to Berlin under his name. As Ott's report was received very favorably at both the Bendlerstrasse and the Wilhelmstrasse, Sorge soon become one of Ott's main sources of information about the Japanese empire, creating a very close friendship between the two. In 1935, Sorge passed on to Moscow a planning document provided to him by Ozaki, which strongly suggested that Japan was not planning on attacking the Soviet Union in 1936. Sorge guessed correctly that Japan would invade China in July 1937, and there was no danger of a Japanese invasion of Siberia. Sorge lived in a house in a respectable neighborhood in Tokyo, where he was mostly noted for his heavy drinking and his reckless way of riding his motorcycle. In the summer of 1936, a waitress at a bar frequented by Sorge named Hanako Ishii moved into Sorge's house to become his common-law wife. An American reporter who knew Sorge later wrote that he "created the impression of being a playboy, almost a wastrel, the very antithesis of a keen and dangerous spy."
On February 26, 1936, when a military coup d'état attempt took place in Tokyo, which led to several senior officials being murdered by the rebels, Dirksen and the rest of the German embassy were highly confused as to why this was happening. Dirksen, Ott and other diplomats were at a loss as to explain the coup which was meant to achieve a mystical "Showa Restoration" to the Wilhelmstrasse, which led them to turn to Sorge, the resident Japan expert for help. Using notes supplied to him by Ozaki, Sorge submitted a report, which stated the "Imperial Way" faction in the Japanese Army, which had attempted the coup, were younger officers from rural backgrounds upset at the impoverishment of the countryside, and the "Imperial Way" faction was not communist or socialist, just merely anti-capitalist, believing that big business had subverted the emperor's will. Sorge's report was used as the basis of Dirksen's explanation of the coup attempt which he sent back to the Wilelmstrasse, who were well satisfied at the ambassador's "brilliant" explanation of the coup attempt.
Ironically, Sorge's spying for the Soviets in Japan during the late-1930s was probably safer for him than if he had been in Moscow. Claiming too many pressing responsibilities, he disobeyed Stalin's orders to return to the Soviet Union in 1937 during the Great Purge, as he realized the risk of arrest because of his German citizenship. In fact, two of Sorge's earliest GRU handlers, Jānis Bērziņš and his successor, Artur Artuzov, were shot during the purges. In 1938, the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop was promoted to foreign minister, and to replace Ribbentrop, Dirksen was sent to London. Ribbentrop promoted General Ott to be Dirksen's replacement. Ott, by now aware that Sorge was sleeping with his wife, let his friend Sorge have "free run of the embassy night and day" as one German diplomat later recalled. Ott tolerated Sorge's affair with his wife, on the grounds that Sorge was such a charismatic man that women were always falling in love with him, and so it was only natural that Sorge would sleep with his wife. Ott liked to call Sorge Richard der Unwiderstehliche ("Richard the Irresistible") as his charm made him very attractive to women. Ott greatly valued Sorge as a source of information about the secretive world of Japanese politics and especially Japan's war with China as he found that Sorge knew things about Japan that no other Westerner knew, to such an extent that he chose to overlook Sorge's affair with his wife Helma.
After Ott become the ambassador to Japan in April 1938, Sorge had a breakfast with him every day where the two discussed in detail German-Japanese relations, and Sorge sometimes drafted the cables that Ott sent under his name to Berlin. Ott trusted Sorge so much that he sent him out as a German courier to carry secret messages to the German consulates in Canton, Hong Kong, and Manila. Sorge himself noted about his influence in the German Embassy: "They would come to me and say, 'we have found out such and such a thing, have you heard about it and what do you think?'". Of all of Sorge's various relationships with women, the most durable and lastingly was with a Japanese woman Hanako Ishii who tried to curb Sorge's heavy drinking and his habit of recklessly riding his motorcycle around the Japanese countryside in a manner that everyone viewed as almost suicidal.
On May 13, 1938, while riding his motorcycle down the streets of Tokyo, a very intoxicated Sorge crashed into a wall and was badly injured. As Sorge was carrying around notes given to him by Ozaki at the time, had the police discovered the documents his cover would have been blown. However, a member of his spy ring was able to get to the hospital to remove the documents before the police arrived. In 1938, Sorge reported to Moscow that the Battle of Lake Khasan was due to over-zealous officers in the Kwantung Army and there were no plans in Tokyo for a general war with the Soviet Union. Unaware that Berzin had been shot as a "Trotskyite" in July 1938, Sorge sent him a letter in October 1938 reading:
Dear Comrade! Don't worry about us. Although we are terribly tired and tense, nevertheless we are disciplined, obedient, decisive and devoted fellows who are ready to carry out the tasks connected with our great mission. I send sincere greetings to you and your friends. I request you to forward the attached letter and greetings to my wife. Please, take the time to see to her welfare.
Sorge never learned that his friend Berzin had been shot as a traitor.
The two most authoritative sources for intelligence for the Soviet Union about Germany in the late-1930s were Sorge and Rudolf von Scheliha, the First Secretary at the German embassy in Warsaw. Unlike Sorge who believed in communism, Scheliha's reasons for spying were due to money problems as he had a lifestyle beyond his salary as a diplomat, and he turned to selling secrets to provide additional income. Scheliha sold documents to the NKVD indicating that Germany was planning from the late-1938 on turning Poland into a satellite state, and after the Poles refused to fall into line, on invading Poland from March 1939 onward. Sorge for his part reported that Japan did not intend for the border war with the Soviet Union that began in May 1939 to escalate into all-out war. Sorge also reported that the attempt to turn the Anti-Comintern Pact into a military alliance was floundering; the Germans wanted the alliance to be directed against Britain while the Japanese wanted the alliance to be directed against the Soviet Union. Sorge's reports that the Japanese were not planning on invading Siberia were disbelieved in Moscow and on 1 September 1939, Sorge was attacked in a message from Moscow reading:
Japan must have commenced important movements (military and political) in preparation for war against the Soviet Union but you have not provided any appreciable information. Your activity seems to getting slack.
Wartime intelligence supplied by the Sorge Ring
Sorge supplied Soviet intelligence with information about the Anti-Comintern Pact and the German-Japanese Pact. In 1941, through his Embassy contacts, he learned of Operation Barbarossa, the imminent Axis invasion of the USSR, and even the approximate date. On May 30, 1941, Sorge reported to Moscow: "Berlin informed Ott that German attack will commence in the latter part of June. Ott 95 percent certain war will commence." On June 20, 1941, Sorge reported: "Ott told me that war between Germany and the USSR is inevitable.... Invest [the code name for Ozaki] told me that the Japanese General Staff is already discussing what position to take in the event of war." Moscow received the reports, but ultimately Joseph Stalin and other top leaders ignored Sorge's warnings, as well as those of other sources, including early false alarms.
It has been rumored that Sorge provided the exact date of "Barbarossa", but historian Gordon Prange in 1984 concluded that the closest Sorge came was June 20, 1941, and that Sorge himself never claimed to have discovered the correct date (22 June) in advance. The date of June 20 was given to Sorge by Oberstleutnant (lieutenant-colonel) Erwin Scholl, the deputy military attaché at the German embassy. Despite knowing Germany was going to invade the Soviet Union sometime in May or June 1941, Sorge was still shocked on June 22, 1941, when he learned of Operation Barbarossa, going to a bar to get drunk while repeating in English: "Hitler's a fucking criminal! A murderer. But Stalin will teach the bastard a lesson. You just wait and see!". The Soviet press reported in 1964 that on June 15, 1941, Sorge had sent a radio dispatch saying that "The war will begin on June 22." Prange, who did not have access to material released by the Russian authorities in the 1990s, did not accept the veracity of this report. Stalin was quoted as having ridiculed Sorge and his intelligence before "Barbarossa":
There's this bastard who's set up factories and brothels in Japan and even deigned to report the date of the German attack as 22 June. Are you suggesting I should believe him too?
In late-June 1941, Sorge informed Moscow that Ozaki had learned the Japanese cabinet had decided to occupy the southern half of French Indochina (modern Vietnam) and though invading the Soviet Union was being considered as an option, for the moment Konoye had decided on neutrality. On 2 July 1941, an Imperial Conference attended by the emperor, Konoye, and the senior military leaders approved of occupying all of French Indochina and to reinforce the Kwantung Army for a possible invasion of the Soviet Union. At the bottom of the report, the deputy chief of the Soviet general staff wrote: "In consideration of the high reliability and accuracy of previous information and the competence of the information sources, this information can be trusted." In July 1941, Sorge reported that the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had ordered General Ott to start pressuring the Japanese to attack the Soviet Union, but that the Japanese were resisting this pressure. On 25 August 1941, Sorge reported to Moscow: "Invest [Ozaki] was able to learn from circles closest to [Japanese Prime Minister] Konoye...that the High Command...discussed whether they should go to war with the USSR. They decided not to launch the war within this year, repeat, not to launch the war this year." On 6 September 1941, an Imperial Conference decided against war with the Soviet Union, and ordered that Japan start preparations for a possible war with the United States and the British Empire, which Ozaki reported to Sorge. At the same time, Ott told Sorge his efforts to get Japan to attack the Soviet Union had all failed. On 14 September 1941, Sorge reported to Moscow: "In the careful judgment of all of us here…the possibility of [Japan] launching an attack, which existed until recently, has disappeared...." Sorge advised the Red Army on 14 September 1941, that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union until:
- Moscow was captured
- The Kwantung Army was three times the size of Soviet Far Eastern forces
- A civil war had started in Siberia.
This information made possible the transfer of Soviet divisions from the Far East, although the presence of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria necessitated the Soviet Union's keeping a large number of troops on the eastern borders...
Various writers have speculated that this information allowed the release of Siberian divisions for the Battle of Moscow, where the German Army suffered its first strategic defeat in the war. To this end, Sorge's information might have been the most important military intelligence work in World War II. However, Sorge was not the only source of Soviet intelligence about Japan as Soviet code-breakers had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, and Moscow thus knew from signals intelligence that there would be no Japanese attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. Another important item allegedly reported by Sorge may have affected the Battle of Stalingrad. Sorge reported that Japan would attack the Soviet Union from the east as soon as the German army captured any city on the Volga.
Arrests and trials
As the war progressed, Sorge was in increasing danger, but he continued his service. His radio messages were enciphered with unbreakable one-time pads (always used by the Soviet intelligence agencies), and appeared as gibberish. However, due to the increasing number of these mystery messages, the Japanese began to suspect that an intelligence ring was operating. Sorge was also coming under increasing suspicion in Berlin. By 1941, the Nazis had instructed SS Standartenführer Josef Albert Meisinger, aka the "Butcher of Warsaw", the Gestapo resident at the German Embassy in Tokyo, to begin monitoring Sorge and his activities. Sorge was able through one of his lovers, Margarete Harich-Schneider, a German musician living in Japan, to gain the key to Meisinger's apartment (which had once been her apartment). Much to his relief, he learned that Meisinger had concluded that the allegations that Sorge was a Soviet agent were groundless, and Sorge's loyalty was to the Fatherland. Sorge befriended Meisinger by playing on his principal weakness, namely alcohol, and spent much time getting him drunk, which contributed to Meisinger's favorable evaluation of Sorge. Meisinger reported to Berlin that the friendship between Ott and Sorge: "was now so close that all normal reports from attachés to Berlin became mere appendages to the overall report written by Sorge and signed by the Ambassador." The Kempeitai (Japanese secret police) intercepted many messages and began to close in. Sorge in his penultimate message to Moscow in October 1941 reported "The Soviet Far East can be considered safe from Japanese attack". In his last message to Moscow, Sorge asked that he be sent back to Germany as there was no danger of a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union, and he wished to aid the Soviet war effort by providing more intelligence about the German war effort. Ozaki was arrested on October 14, 1941, and immediately interrogated. As the Kempeitai trailed Sorge, they discovered that Frau Ott was a regular visitor to Sorge's house, and he spent his last night as a free man sleeping with her.
Sorge was arrested shortly thereafter on October 18, 1941, in Tokyo. The next day, a brief memo notified German ambassador Eugen Ott that Sorge had been arrested "on suspicion of espionage" together with Max Clausen. Ott was both surprised and outraged, and assumed it was a case of "Japanese espionage hysteria". He thought that Sorge had been discovered passing secret information on the Japan-US negotiations to the German Embassy, and also that the arrest could be due to anti-German elements in the Japanese government. Nonetheless, he immediately agreed with Japanese authorities to "investigate the incident fully". It was not until a few months later that Japanese authorities announced that Sorge had in fact been indicted as a Soviet agent.
He was incarcerated in Sugamo Prison. Initially, the Japanese believed that, due to his Nazi Party membership and German ties, Sorge was an Abwehr agent. However, the Abwehr denied that he was one of their agents. Under torture, Sorge confessed, but the Soviet Union denied he was a Soviet agent. The Japanese made three overtures to the Soviet Union, offering to trade Sorge for one of their own spies. However, the Soviet Union declined all the offers, maintaining that Sorge was unknown to them. In September 1942, Sorge's wife Katya Maximova was arrested by the NKVD on the charges that she was a "German spy", since she was married to the German citizen Sorge (that Sorge was a GRU agent did not matter to the NKVD), and was deported to the Gulag. Maximova died in the Gulag in 1943. Hanako Ishii, a Japanese woman who loved Sorge and the only woman whom Sorge loved in return, was the only person who tried to visit Sorge during his time in Sugamo Prison. During one of her visits, she expressed concern that Sorge under torture by the Kempeitai would name her as involved in his spy ring, but he promised her that he would never mention her name to the Kempeitai. The Kempeitai was much feared in Japan for its use of torture as an investigation method. Sorge ultimately struck a deal with the Kempeitai that if they would spare Ishii and the wives of the other members of the spy ring, he would reveal all. Ishii was never arrested by the Kempeitai Sorge told his Kempeital captors:
That I successfully approached the German embassy in Japan and won the absolute trust by people there was the foundation of my organisation in Japan...Even in Moscow that fact that I infiltrated into the centre of the embassy and made use of it for my spying activity is evaluated as extremely amazing, having no equivalent in history.
After the arrest of Sorge, Meisinger used the increased spy fear of the Japanese to fraudulently denounce "anti-Nazis" as "Soviet spies" to Japanese authorities. He was responsible for the persecution, the internment and the torture of the "Schindler" of Tokyo, Willy Rudolf Foerster. Foerster was forced to sell his company, where he had employed a sizable number of Jewish refugees from Germany and the countries occupied by Germany. He and his Japanese wife survived, but after the war the same people (i.e., former German diplomats), who had denounced and persecuted him as an "anti-Nazi", were able to discredit him.
Richard Sorge was hanged on 7 November 1944, at 10:20 Tokyo time in Sugamo Prison and was pronounced dead 19 minutes later. Hotsumi Ozaki had been hanged earlier in the same day. Sorge's body was not cremated, due to wartime fuel shortages. He was buried in the nearby Zoshigaya Cemetery.
Sorge was survived by his mother, then living in Germany, and he left his estate to Anna Clausen, the wife of his radio operator.
After hounding the U.S. Occupation authorities, Sorge's Japanese lover Hanako Ishii (1911 - July 1, 2000) located and recovered his skeleton on November 16, 1949. After identifying him by his distinctive dental work and a poorly set broken-leg she had him cremated at the Shimo-Ochial Cremation Centre. Nearly a year later she had his ashes interred in Section 17, Area 1, Row 21, Plot 16 at Tama Cemetery in Fuchū, Tokyo. She had erected a black marble tombstone bearing the epitaph which reads, in Japanese: "Here lies a hero who sacrificed his life fighting against war and for world peace."
She kept his teeth, belt and spectacles and had made a ring of his gold bridgework which she wore for the rest of her life. Following her death her own ashes were interred beside his.
The Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge Sorge until 1964.
It was argued that Sorge's biggest coup led to his undoing, because Stalin could not afford to let it become known that he had rejected Sorge's warning about the German attack in June 1941. However, nations seldom officially recognize their own undercover agents.
Sorge was unknown to the world until 1952 when U.S general Charles A. Willoughby published his book The Shanghai Conspiracy, claiming that the Sorge spy ring was still in existence, and had caused the "loss of China" in 1949 and was in the process of taking over the U.S. government.[dead link] The Shanghai Conspiracy was endorsed by Senator Joseph McCarthy and by many members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The American Japanologist Michael Schaller wrote that Willoughby was indeed correct that Sorge was a Soviet spy and that certain left-wing American journalists who worked with Sorge in Shanghai in the early-1930s were probably also Soviet agents, but much of what Willoughby wrote reflected the paranoid mind of one of the most incompetent military intelligence officers ever in American history.
Initially, Sorge's reputation in West Germany in the 1950s was a highly negative one, with Sorge depicted as a traitor working for the Soviet Union who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers in the winter of 1941-42. The 1950s were a transition moment in the German memory of Nazi Germany as those Germans who had supported the Third Reich sought a version of history that presented them as victims rather than as followers of Hitler, portrayed Nazism as an aberration in German history that had no connections to traditional Prussian values, portrayed the Wehrmacht as an honorable fighting force that had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and presented the Soviets as guilty of crimes that even more horrific than those committed by the Nazis. Given this way of remembering the Nazi past in the 1950s, Operation Barbarossa and Germany's war in the East were seen as a heroic and legitimate war against the Soviet Union that Germans should not be ashamed of.
The first tentative efforts at changing the memory of the Nazi past started in the early-1950s with President Theodor Heuss giving a speech on July 20, 1954, praising the putsch attempt of July 20, 1944, arguing that "the men of July 20th" were patriots rather than traitors, which was a bold gesture at the time. The first effort to present Sorge in a positive light occurred in the summer of 1953 when the influential publisher Rudolf Augstein wrote a 17-part series in his magazine Der Spiegel where he argued that Sorge was not a Soviet agent, but rather a heroic German patriot opposed to the Nazi regime whose motivation in providing intelligence to the Soviet Union was to bring down Hitler, rather than to support Stalin. Augstein also attacked Willoughby for his book The Shanghai Conspiracy claiming that Sorge had caused the "loss of China" in 1949 and that the Sorge spy ring was in the process of taking over the U.S government, arguing that Willoughby and his fans had completely misunderstood that Sorge's espionage was directed against Germany and Japan, not the U.S.
Such was the popularity of Augstein's articles that the German author Hans Hellmut Kirst published a spy novel featuring Sorge as the hero while Hans-Otto Meissner wrote the book Der Fall Sorge (The Sorge Case) that was a cross between a novel and a history, blending fact and fiction together with a greater emphasis on the latter. Meissner had served as third secretary at the German Embassy in Tokyo and knew Sorge. Meissner's book, which was written as a thriller that engaged in "orientalism" with the portrayal of Japan as a strange, mysterious country where the enigmatic and charismatic master-spy Sorge operated as he infiltrated both the Japanese state and the German Embassy. Meissner presented Sorge as the consummate spy, a cool professional dressed in a rumpled trench coat and fedora who was a great womanizer, and much of the book is concerned with Sorge's various relationships. Later on, Meissner presented Sorge as a rather megalomaniac figure, in the process changing Sorge's motivation from loyalty to communism to colossal egoism, as he has Sorge rant about his equal dislike for both Stalin and Hitler, and has him say that he only supplies enough information to both regimes to manipulate them into destroying each other as it suits him to play one against the other. At the book's climax, Sorge has agreed to work for the American OSS in exchange for being settled to settle in Hawaii and he is in the process of learning that Japan is planning on bombing Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, but his love of women prove to be his undoing as the Japanese dancer Kiyomi rejects his sexual advances. Sorge finally seduces Kiyomi, but loses valuable time, which allows the Kempeitai to arrest him.
The American historian Cornelius Partsch noted some striking aspects of Meissner's book such as his complete exoneration of the Auswärtiges Amt from any involvement in the criminal aspects of the Nazi regime; he has Sorge constantly breaking into offices to steal information, which he did not, as security at the German embassy was sloppy and Sorge was trusted as an apparently dedicated Nazi journalist, making breaking into offices unnecessary; and he avoided any mention of SS Standartenführer Josef Albert Meisinger, the "Butcher of Warsaw" who was stationed at the German Embassy as the police attache to Japan. Partsch wrote Meissner gave Sorge almost superhuman abilities at lock-breaking as he broke into various offices, safes, and filing cabinets with the greatest ease while in reality, secret documents were all too left out in the open in unlocked rooms and Sorge was allowed to wander about the embassy without escort. Likewise, Meissner portrayed the Auswärtiges Amt in the traditional manner, as a glamorous, elitist group who operated in exotic places like Japan serving the Fatherland, not the Nazi regime.
Kirst's book Die letzte Karte spielt der Tod is a novel that offers a considerably more realistic picture than Meissner's romanticized portrayal of Sorge. Kirst portrayed Sorge as an existential hero, a deeply traumatized veteran of World War One, whose sleep was constantly disturbed by horrific nightmares of his war service while when he is awake he suffered from frequent panic attacks. Kirst's book depicted Sorge as a "lonely, desperate" man, a tragic, wounded individual with a reckless streak who engaged in maniacal binge drinking, near-suicidal motorcycle riding across the Japanese countryside, and though he wanted love, was incapable of maintaining lasting relationships. Unlike Meissner, Kirst has Meisinger appear as one of the book's villains, portraying him as an especially loathsome and stupid SS officer, who was fully deserving of being deceived by Sorge. As part of Kirst's portrayal of Sorge as a tragic man on the brink and as victim led him to portray Sorge's spying for the Soviet Union as due to forces beyond his control. Kirst was more forceful in his condemnation of National Socialism than Meissner as his book maintained that the National Socialist regime was so monstrously evil that an existential man forever on the brink of a mental breakdown like Sorge ended up spying for the Soviet Union as the lesser evil.
Partsch noted that both books are very much concerned with Sorge's womanizing (which neither author exaggerated), but presented this aspect of his personality in different ways. Kirst portrayed Sorge's womanizing as part of the same self-destructive urges that led him to spy for the Soviet Union, while Meissner depicted Sorge's womanizing as part of his callous narcissism, and as his principal weakness, as his desire for Kiyomi finally destroys him. In turn, this led to different depictions of the male body. Meissner portrayed the male body as the seductive instrument that entices female desire, and led women into ill-advised relationships with Sorge, whose body is perfectly fit and attractive to women. Kirst by contrast, correctly notes that Sorge walked with a pronounced limp due to a war wound, which he has Sorge sarcastically say was due to his "gallantry", and in his book, Sorge's wounded body served as a metaphor for his wounded soul. Partsch further commented that Meissner's book is a depoliticized and personalized account of the Sorge spy ring as he omitted any mention of Hotsumi Ozaki (an idealistic man who sincerely believed his country was on the wrong course), and he portrayed Sorge as a "Faustian man" motivated only by his vanity to exercise "a god-like power over the world", giving Sorge "an overblown, pop-Nietzschen sense of destiny". The ultimate "message" of Meissner's book was that Sorge was an amoral, egoistical individual whose actions had nothing to do with ideology, and that the only reason why Germany was defeated by the Soviet Union was due to Sorge's spying, thereby suggests Germany lost the war only because of "fate". Meissner followed the "great man" interpretation of history with few "great men" deciding the events of the world with everyone else reduced to passive bystanders. By contrast, Kirst pictured Sorge as a victim, as a mere pawn in a "murderous chess game", and emphasized Sorge's opposition to the Nazi regime as motivation for his actions. Kirst further noted that Sorge was betrayed by his own masters as after his arrest, the Soviet regime denounced him as a "Trotskyite", and made no effort to save him. Partsch concluded that the two rival interpretations of Sorge put forward in the novels by Meissner and Kirst in 1955 have shaped Sorge's image in the West, especially Germany, from the time of their publication to the present.
In 1954, West German film director Veit Harlan wrote and directed the film Verrat an Deutschland about Sorge's espionage in Japan. Harlan had been the favorite filmmaker of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and directed many propaganda films, including Jud Süss. Harlan's film is a romantic drama, starring Harlan's wife Kristina Söderbaum, as Sorge's love interest. The film was publicly premiered by the distributor before it passed the rating system, hence withdrawn from more public performances and finally released after some editing was done.
In 1961, a movie called Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge ? (Who Are You, Mr. Sorge?) was produced in France in collaboration with West Germany, Italy, and Japan. This movie was very popular in the Soviet Union as well. The part of Sorge was played by Thomas Holtzmann.
On November 5, 1964, 20 years after his death, the Soviet government awarded Sorge with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Sorge's widow Hanako Ishii received a Soviet and Russian pension until her death in July 2000 in Tokyo. In the 1960s, the KGB, seeking to improve its image in the Soviet Union, began the cult of the "hero spy" with former Chekists working abroad being celebrated as the great "hero spies" in books, films, and newspapers. Sorge was one of those selected for "hero spy" status. In fact, the Soviets had broken Japanese codes in 1941, and already knew independently of the intelligence provided by Sorge that Japan had decided to "strike south" (i.e., attacking the US and the UK) instead of "striking north" (i.e., attacking the USSR). The Kremlin gave much greater attention to signals intelligence in evaluating threats from Japan in the years 1931-1941 than it did intelligence gathered by the Sorge spy ring, but as Soviet intelligence did not like to mention the achievements of its code-breakers, Soviet propaganda from 1964 onward gloried Sorge as a "hero spy", and avoided all mention that the Soviets had broken the Japanese codes. The Soviets during the Cold War liked to give the impression that all of their intelligence came from "humint" (human intelligence) rather than "sigint" (signals intelligence) as to fool Western nations about the extent that they collected information via sigint. A testament to Sorge's fame in the Soviet Union was that even through Sorge worked for the GRU, not the NKVD, the KGB, which had far more power than the Red Army, claimed him as one of their "hero spies" in the 1960s.
In 1965, three East German journalists published Dr. Sorge funkt aus Tokyo in celebration of Sorge and his actions. In the lead up to the award, Sorge's claim that Friedrich Adolf Sorge was his grandfather was repeated in the Soviet press. In a strange Cold War oddity, these authors stirred up a free speech scandal with patriotic letters to former Nazis in West Germany, causing the Verfassungsschutz to issue a stern warning in early-1967: "If you receive mail from a certain Julius Mader, do not reply to him and pass on the letter to the respective security authorities."
In 1971, a comic book based on Sorge's life, titled Wywiadowca XX wieku ("20th Century intelligence officer"), was published in the People's Republic of Poland to familiarize younger readers with Sorge.
In his 1981 book, Their Trade is Treachery, author Chapman Pincher asserted that Sorge, a GRU agent himself, recruited Englishman Roger Hollis in China in the early-1930s to provide information. Hollis later returned to England, joined MI5 just before World War II began, and eventually became director-general of MI5 from 1956 to 1965. As detailed by former MI5 staffer Peter Wright in his 1988 book Spycatcher, Hollis was accused of being a Soviet agent, but despite several lengthy and seemingly thorough investigations, no conclusive proof was ever obtained.
Comments about Sorge
- "A devastating example of a brilliant success of espionage." – Douglas MacArthur, General of the Army
- "His work was impeccable." – Kim Philby
- "In my whole life, I have never met anyone as great as he was." – Mitsusada Yoshikawa, Chief Prosecutor in the Sorge trials who obtained Sorge's death sentence.
- "Sorge was the man whom I regard as the most formidable spy in history." – Ian Fleming
- "Richard Sorge was the best spy of all time." – Tom Clancy
- "The spy who changed the world." – Lance Morrow
- "Somehow, amidst the Bonds and Smiley's People, we have ignored the greatest of 20th century spy stories – that of Stalin's Sorge, whose exploits helped change history." – Carl Bernstein
- "Richard Sorge's brilliant espionage work saved Stalin and the Soviet Union from defeat in the fall of 1941, probably prevented a Nazi victory in World War II and thereby assured the dimensions of the world we live in today." – Larry Collins
- "The spies in history who can say from their graves, the information I supplied to my masters, for better or worse, altered the history of our planet, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Richard Sorge was in that group." – Frederick Forsyth
- "Stalin's James Bond." – Le Figaro
There are several fictional representations of Sorge's life:
- The German Letzte Karte spielt der Tod by Hans Hellmut Kirst, published in English as The Last Card (New York: Pyramid Publications, Inc., 1967) and Death Plays the Last Card (London: Fontana, 1968).
- The French docu-drama Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge? (1961), written by Yves Ciampi, Tsutomu Sawamura, and Hans-Otto Meissner.
- The American novel Wild Midnight Falls (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968) in the Milo March series by M. E. Chaber, based on the supposition that Sorge was still alive and secretly active.
- The French L'Insensé by Morgan Sportes (Grasset, 2002) translated into Japanese as Sorge hametsu no fuga (Iwanami Shoten, 2005).
- The 1997 novel Stepper by Australian Brian Castro.
- The 2000 short story collection The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon.
- The later chapters of Osamu Tezuka's manga Adolf.
- The Japanese film Spy Sorge (2003), directed by Masahiro Shinoda and starring Iain Glen as Sorge.
- The Book The Man With Three Faces by German Hans-Otto Meissner, who wrote it based in his experiences as a diplomat in wartime. He met Sorge on some occasions.
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