Richard Sorge

Richard Sorge

Richard Sorge, the son of a German mining engineer, was born in Baku, Russia, on 4th October, 1895. Sorge was the youngest of nine children. In 1898 the Sorge family moved back to Germany.

On the outbreak of the First World War Sorge joined the German Army. In June 1915 Sorge's unit was transferred to the Eastern Front. He was a courageous soldier and was awarded the Iron Cross. In March 1916 Sorge was badly wounded when both legs were broken by shrapnel.

While in hospital he began a relationship with one of his nurses. Over the next few months he met and was influenced by the woman's Marxist father. Not fit enough to return to the frontline, Sorge was allowed to study at Berlin University. Later he recalled that he now "decided not only to study, but also to take part in the organized revolutionary movement".

In 1919 Sorge was formerly released from the army and he transferred his studies to the University of Kiel. He also joined the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD). After leaving university he worked as a journalist and in April 1925 he moved to the Soviet Union where he started work for the Comintern Intelligence Division.

Sorge was recruited as a spy for the Soviet Union and using the cover of being a journalist he was sent to various European countries to assess the possibility of communist uprisings taking place. In 1929 Sorge arrived in England to "study the labour movements, the status of the Communist Party and the political and economic conditions in Britain." He was instructed to remain undercover and not to become involved in politics while living in England.

In November 1929 Sorge returned to Germany where he was instructed to join the Nazi Party and not to associate with left-wing activists. To help develop a cover for his spying activities he obtained a post working for the newspaper, Getreide Zeitung. Sorge moved to China and made contact with another spy, Max Klausen. Sorge also met Agnes Smedley, the well-known left-wing journalist working for the Frankfurter Zeitung. She introduced Sorge to Ozaki Hotsumi, who was employed by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. Later Hotsumi agreed to join Sorge's spy network. As a journalist Sorge established himself as an expert on Chinese agriculture. This gave him the freedom to travel around the country making contacts with members of the Chinese Communist Party.

In May 1933 the Soviet Union decided to get Sorge to organize a spy network in Japan. As cover Sorge went to Nazi Germany where he was able to get commissions from two newspapers, the Borsen Zeitung and the Tagliche Rundschau. He also got support from the Nazi theoretical journal, Geopolitik. Later he was to get work from the Frankfurter Zeitung.

Sorge arrived in Japan in September 1933. He was warned by his spymaster not to have contact with the underground Japanese Communist Party or with the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo. His spy network in Japan include Max Klausen, Ozaki Hotsumi, and two other Comintern agents, Branko Vukelic, 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.

Sorge soon developed good relations with several important figures working at the German Embassy in Tokyo. This included Eugen Ott and the German Ambassador Herbert von Dirksen. This enabled him to find out information about Germany's intentions towards the Soviet Union. Other spies in the network had access to senior politicians in Japan including prime minister Fumimaro Konoye and they were able to obtain good information about Japan's foreign policy.

As a result of the information accumulated by the network Sorge was able to give Joseph Stalin advance warning about the Anti-Comintern Pact (1936), the German-Japanese Pact (1940) and Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour. His greatest achievement was to inform the Soviet Union in December, 1940, of the proposed Operation Barbarossa.

Despite the efforts of Sorge, Joseph Stalin did not believe that the German Army would attack at that time and did not take the necessary action. As Leonard Trepper, the head of Red Orchestra, later pointed out: "The generalissimo preferred to trust his political instinct rather than the secret reports piled up on his desk. Convinced that he had signed an eternal pact of friendship with Germany, he sucked on the pipe of peace."

At the end of August, 1941, Sorge was able to tell Joseph Stalin that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union that year. Two months later Sorge was arrested in Tokyo and was held in prison for three years. The Soviet Union refused to exchange Sorge for Japanese prisoners they held and he was hung on 7th November, 1944.

Primary Sources

(1) Richard Sorge later wrote about his experiences of the First World War.

None of my simple soldier friends knew the real purpose of the war, not to speak of its deep-seated significance. Most of the soldiers were middle-aged men, workers and craftsmen by profession. Almost all of them belonged to industrial unions, and many were Social Democrats. There was one real leftist, an old stonemason from Hamburg, who refused to talk to anybody about his political beliefs. We became firm friends, and he told me of his life in Hamburg and of the persecution and unemployment he had gone through. He was the first pacifist I had come across. He died in action in the early days of 1915, just before I was wounded for the first time.

(2) Document produced by the Japanese police after interrogating Richard Sorge in 1941.

The accused, Richard Sorge, after experiencing the horrors of the last war, came to the realization that certain self-evident contradictions are inherent in the capitalist system of the present day, joined the workers' movement towards the end of the war, studied Communist literature and gradually became a believer in Communism. He was admitted to membership of the German Communist Party in November 1919 in Hamburg, and here and elsewhere engaged in clandestine propaganda, agitation and educational work. When, in January 1925, he attended a congress convened in

Moscow by Comintern Headquarters in the capacity of a delegate of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party Central Secretariat, he received instructions to join the Comintern Information Department and to continue his work under its aegis. In the spring of 1930, having received instructions to concentrate on espionage, he went to China and carried out his assignment in various localities. On receiving further instructions to carry out parallel activities in Japan, he applied in Berlin for membership of the German National Socialist Party. By way of camouflage, he simultaneously took up the post of correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung.

(3) Agnes Smedley met Richard Sorge in China in 1930. She wrote about their relationship in a letter to Florence Lennon in May 1930.

I'm married, child, so to speak - just sort of married, you know; but he's a he-man also, and its 50-50 all along the line, with he helping me and I him and we working together or bust, and so on; it's a big, broad, all-sided friendship and comradeship. I do not know how long it will last; that does not depend on us. I fear not long. But these days will be the best in my life. Never have I known such good days, never have I known such a healthy life, mentally, physically, psychically.

(4) Hede Massing knew Richard Sorge as a young man in Germany. She met him again in New York in 1935. She wrote about him in Der Spiegel in June 1951.

Sorge, whom we had originally known as a calm, scholarly man, had changed visibly in the few years he had been working for the Soviet Union. When I saw him for the last time in New York in 1935 he had become a violent man, a strong drinker. Little was left of the charm of the romantic, idealist student, although he was still extraordinarily good-looking. But his cold blue, slightly slanting eyes, with their heavy eyebrows, had retained their capacity for self-mockery, even when this was groundless. His hair was still brown and unthinned, but his cheekbones and sad mouth were sunken, and his nose was pointed. He had changed completely.

(5) Document produced by the Japanese police after interrogating Richard Sorge in 1941.

In September 1933 Sorge arrived in Japan from America in this capacity. From that time until his arrest he concealed his illegal activities by posing as a Yugoslav national, Vukelic, of Japanese citizens and of other foreigners; amassed information (again in collaboration with the Comintern) on military, political, economic and various other matters relative to Japan, and sent it to the Comintern by means of a radio transmitter and in various other ways.

(6) Coded message sent from the Soviet Union to Richard Sorge (25th May, 1940)

Your secondary mission, which is next in importance to your primary mission, is to satisfy the following requirements: We need documents, material, and information concerning the reorganization of the Japanese army. What are the units which make up the new organization? What are the original units which have been inactivated and reorganized? What are the names of the new units ? Who are their commanders ? We are anxious to have detailed information concerning changes in Japanese foreign policy. Reports following events are not enough. We must have advance information.

(7) Richard Sorge, confession in 1941.

I myself was surprised that I was able to do secret work in Japan for years without being caught by the authorities. I believe that my group and I escaped because we had legitimate occupations which gave us good social standing and inspired confidence in us. I believe that all members of foreign spy rings should have occupations such as newspaper correspondents, missionaries, business representatives, etc. The police did not pay much attention to us beyond sending plain-clothes men to our houses to question the servants. I was never shadowed. I never feared that our secret work would be exposed by the foreign members in the group, but I worried a good deal over the possibility that we should be discovered through our Japanese agents, and just as I expected this was what happened.

(8) Leopold Trepper, the head of the Red Orchestra, kept Joseph Stalin and the Red Army informed of the planned German invasion of the Soviet Union. He wrote about this in his autobiography, The Great Game (1977)

On December 18, 1940, Hitler signed Directive Number 21, better known as Operation Barbarossa. The first sentence of the plan was explicit: "The German armed forces must be ready before the end of the war against Great Britain to defeat the Soviet Union by means of Blitzkrieg."

Richard Sorge warned the Centre immediately; he forwarded them a copy of the directive. Week after week, the heads of Red Army Intelligence received updates on the Wehrmacht's preparations. At the beginning of 1941, Schulze-Boysen sent the Centre precise information on the operation being planned; massive bombardments of Leningrad, Kiev, and Vyborg; the number of divisions involved.

In February, I sent a detailed dispatch giving the exact number of divisions withdrawn from France and Belgium, and sent to the east. In May, through the Soviet military attaché in Vichy, General Susloparov, I sent the proposed plan of attack, and indicated the original date, May 15, then the revised date, and the final date. On May 12, Sorge warned Moscow that 150 German divisions were massed along the frontier.

The Soviet intelligence services were not the only ones in possession of this information. On March 11, 1941, Roosevelt gave the Russian ambassador the plans gathered by American agents for Operation Barbarossa. On the 10th June the English released similar information. Soviet agents working in the frontier zone in Poland and Rumania gave detailed reports on the concentration of troops.

He who closes his eyes sees nothing, even in the full light of day. This was the case with Stalin and his entourage. The generalissimo preferred to trust his political instinct rather than the secret reports piled up on his desk. Convinced that he had signed an eternal pact of friendship with Germany, he sucked on the pipe of peace. He had buried his tomahawk and he was not ready to dig it up.

(9) German official at the Tokyo Embassy (24th October, 1941)

Richard Sorge belongs to the closest circles of Ambassador Ott's friends. It is well known in leading Japanese circles that Sorge had already formed close connections with the Ambassador when the latter was military attaché. Sorge is regarded as one of the best experts on Japan, though his critical attitude towards his host country has often raised considerable displeasure in official Japanese quarters. As stated in the attached telegram, the arrest could be explained by the influence of anglophile groups who are angered at the fall of the Konoye Cabinet, and attribute it, among other things, to German influence. An approach to Prime Minister Tojo, who as Minister of the Interior controls the police, should clear up the affair as soon as possible.

(10) Branko Vukelic, statement while being interrogated in 1941.

The general atmosphere surrounding our work is one indication that our organization was essentially Communist in character. We held political meetings in a comradely spirit. These meetings were quite untouched by any suggestion of formal discipline. Sorge made it a rule not to become involved in theoretical controversies on political issues. I assume this was in order to avoid the emergence of Trotskyite heresies. Sorge never gave us orders. He only explained what our urgent duty might be; what each of us must do. He would hint to one or two of us what might be the best means of achieving the tasks before us. Or, sometimes, he would say: 'How about taking such and such a course?' Klausen and I, as a matter of fact, were awkward customers, and we behaved in undisciplined ways. Nevertheless, Sorge through all these nine years, except once or twice when he was offended, never adopted an official manner. And even when he was offended, he only appealed to our political conscience and, above all, to the ties of friendship. He never appealed to other motives. He never threatened us; and he never did anything that might be construed as threatening, or as arising from the requirements of official discipline.

This is the most eloquent proof that our group did not possess a military character. The whole atmosphere much resembled that of the Marxist Club to which I had belonged in Yugoslavia. This was thanks in part, of course, to Sorge's personal character. The atmosphere was comradely, quite devoid of military discipline, and of both the good and the bad sides of a military organization.

(11) Statement issued by the official persecutor of Richard Sorge after the war.

Sorge's special relationship to Ambassador Ott, Ozaki's ties with Prime Minister Konoye and others, the social positions of the defendants, and similar considerations made it reasonable to suspect them of having engaged in political activities; and during the course of our investigation we found ample justification for such a suspicion, both Sorge and Ozaki confessing that following the outbreak of the Russo-German war, when a northward thrust had seemed imminent, they had started a political movement aimed at diverting Japan's energies southward against England and the United States.

(12) General Eugen Ott, telegram to Berlin (15th May, 1942)

The charge against the Communist group, in which the Germans Sorge and Klausen are implicated, will be read the day after tomorrow.... As well as Prince Konoye's intimate associate Ozaki and other Japanese, Saionji the grandson of the last Genro Prince and Inukai, the son of the Minister President murdered in 1932, will also be charged. Indictment charges the accused with having carried on espionage for the Communist International. Saionji and Inukai are charged with passing on state secrets to Ozaki, although not aware of his role.

Charge includes a short personal description of Sorge and his statements about known Communist connections in Europe. Sorge, who came to China in 1930 and afterwards to Japan, is said to be the Comintern's contact man for the Japanese group and to have handed over its instructions.

The chief assistant to the Ministry of Justice had informed Minister Kordt that all mention of Sorge's belonging to the Nazi party would be avoided in the wording of the indictment. Japanese justice regards him purely as an international Communist. The head of the European division of the Foreign Ministry added that announcement had become necessary because the Cabinet was interested in people involved. Further releases not intended. The Press will only carry the Ministry of Justice release. He hopes German government will understand the circumstances of the release. In Japanese view the incident will not disturb German-Japanese relations.

(13) After the war Leopold Trepper met General Tominaga, Chief of Staff of the Japanese Army in Manchuria. During the meeting he asked Tominaga about Richard Sorge.

"Do you know anything about Richard Sorge? I asked him.

"Naturally. When the Sorge affair broke out I was Vice-Minister of Defence."

"In that case, why was Sorge sentenced to death at the end of 1941, and not executed until November 7, 1944.? Why didn't you propose that he be exchanged? Japan and the USSR were not at war" (The USSR officially declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945)

He cut me off energetically. "Three times we proposed to the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo that Sorge be exchanged for a Japanese prisoner. Three times we got the same answer: "The man called Richard Sorge is unknown to us."

Unknown, Richard Sorge? Unknown, the man who had warned Russia of the German attack, and who had announced in the middle of the battle of Moscow than Japan would not attack the Soviet Union, thus enabling the Soviet chiefs of staff to bring fresh divisions from Siberia? They preferred to let Richard Sorge be executed rather than have another troublesome witness on their hands after the war.