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Richard Sorge

Spy of the Month -- December 2006

Richard Sorge 1895-1944

Born in Baku, Russia on Oct 4, 1895, to a Russian mother and German father, Richard Sorge's family moved to Germany shortly after his birth and Sorge was raised a German. He became a fervent German nationalist and at the young age of 19, enlisted in the German Army at the eruption of World War I in 1914. Severely wounded while helping to repel a Russian attack, resulting in a limp for the rest of his life, he was discharged. While recuperating, however, he read the works of Karl Marx and became fascinated by communism. Interesting note: Sorge's paternal great uncle had been Marx's personal secretary.

In 1920, the day he graduated from the University of Hamburg with a Ph.D. in political science, Sorge joined the Communist Party (at this time, the Communist Party was not a popular party). After various dismissals from jobs due to his prolific attempts to recruit communists, Sorge barely escaped arrest, slipped out of Berlin and headed to Moscow. Met by the head of intelligence for the Comintern (Soviet intelligence), and realizing the intelligent, clever and perceptive Sorge could be an incredible asset for Soviet intelligence; he was recruited into the spy trade. Sorge became a fluent speaker in French, Russian and English and was eventually declared one of the best spymasters of the 20th Century.

Returning to Germany as a journalist, Sorge conducted underground Party operations. He easily played the role of political scientist while stirring up political revolution. In March 1925, Sorge traveled to Moscow and took an oath to the Communist Party to the exclusion of all other countries and parties.

Although Sorge was useful in Germany, it became apparent to the Soviet Union in 1930 that the bigger threat to the Communist State was China. Sorge was to find a way to go to China to learn all he could about China's military power and financial resources, and to gather information on influential backers and disposition of troops. Utilizing his German heritage and cover as a "journalist", Sorge was given passage throughout China from the German Embassy, where he was able to establish high-level contacts to further his activities.

Through direction from his handlers in Moscow, Sorge met Agnes Smedley, an American who posed as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung. Smedley introduced Sorge to her lover, Hotsumi Ozaki, a special correspondent for Japan's biggest daily newspaper. Ozaki would become Sorge's most valuable source of information for the next 14 years.

At this point, Sorge's expenses were mounting and Moscow did not trust his information as much as some other sources of information. This changed on January 28, 1932, when the Japanese invaded Shanghai. Sorge provided Moscow with analysis that the Japanese paid Chinese criminals to attack Japanese civilians in Shanghai, thereby creating a necessity for Japan to invade China. Sorge gave detailed reports to Moscow with information related to the street fighting in Shanghai (some of which he witnessed first-hand), and included further detailed reports on the inferiority of the Chinese troops versus the excellent condition and leadership of the Japanese troops.

Interestingly enough, Sorge was always thought to be a spy by the Japanese and Chinese. They thought Sorge was really a German agent, pretending to be a Soviet agent, pretending to be a working journalist. Sorge, realizing they thought he was spying for the Germans (an ally), did what he could to promote the perception he was working for the Abwehr (German intelligence).

Due to Sorge's success in penetrating the Chinese and Japanese cultures in China, he was tasked to travel to Japan to set up another spy ring to determine if the Japanese were planning to attack the Soviet Union. Communism was on the upsurge in Germany, so Sorge used his past as a German Communist Party member to secure Germany's concurrence for travel to Japan.

Utilizing his cover as a journalist, Sorge re-contacted Ozaki, who was working as a journalist in the Tokyo offices of Asahi. Ozaki would not accept money for his assistance, as his motivation was purely to keep Japan out of war. Sorge managed to obtain information on the Japanese military war plans for attacks on China, the Soviet Union and the United States.

In 1936, Japanese Emperor Hirohito instigated a mock rebellion by encouraging members loyal to him to assassinate Major General TetsuZan Nagata, a peace-loving officer who did not want war. Hirohito's relative, Lieutenant Colonel Saburo Aizawa, struck down Nagata and sacrificed his own life by silently meeting his execution without divulging Hirohito's involvement. The result of this sacrifice showed all that Hirohito would assassinate those who opposed him, no matter who they were. The sacrifice of Nagata and 12 other officers, in their fervent religious belief, allows them into the highest strata of Shinto heaven. Sorge's analysis of this debacle raised him to even higher status in the eyes of his Soviet Union handlers.

As Sorge was also funneling information to Germany (innocuous information that would not hurt the Soviet Union), he was able to infiltrate the German Embassy and became a personal friend of the German Ambassador to Japan, Eugen Ott. Through Ott, Sorge was able to obtain valuable information relating to future aggressions. He copied documents for the Soviet Union and cemented his later recognition as a legendary spymaster. Sorge's predictions regarding the Japanese incursions into China and the resultant eight-year war between Japan and China were exhaustive reports, which proved amazingly accurate.

Sorge, however, felt lonely and his drinking increased. In 1938, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him with scars and a distorted face, described as a "Japanese mask . . . of almost demoniacal expression."

Continuing his spying activities, Sorge was surprised when Stalin ignored his many analyses that Germany was preparing to invade Russia. Stalin's refusal to believe the threat to his country was from Germany, who signed a non-aggression pact only two years previously, was a grievous mistake, as Germany was able to conquer hundreds of miles of Soviet Union territory within days. Sorge sank into a depression, crying inconsolably for hours on end.

Although disheartened by Stalin's response, or lack thereof, Sorge continued his spying activities and emphasized to the Soviet Union that the U.S. would be Japan's next target. He wrote a lengthy memo to Moscow describing the Japanese Navy preparations and believed the attack would be in early December 1941, with the targets being Honolulu and Pearl Harbor. This information was not shared with the U.S. (although we were allies at the time).

On September 28, 1941, the Japanese started to dismantle Sorge's spy ring. The unraveling started with the arrest of an elderly seamstress regarding people she rented rooms too. She identified Miyagi, one of Sorge's spies and from there, through arrests and torture, the entire spy ring was identified.

Although he had ample time, Sorge did not attempt to flee Japan. He had become despondent and fatalistic. He drank excessively, allowed his home to fall into disarray and deteriorated physically and mentally. After hearing of his arrest, his Japanese and German friends believed there was a conspiracy to frame Sorge. He and his spies were tried in a closed trial, all receiving life sentences except Sorge and Ozaki, who received death sentences. On November 7, 1944, Sorge and Ozaki were hung.

Moscow did not acknowledge Sorge as one of their spymasters until 1964. At that time the Kremlin announced that Richard Sorge was a Hero of the Soviet Union. In recognition of his service to the Soviet Union, a street in Moscow and a tanker were named after him. Of utmost distinction for him, however, is a postage stamp of Sorge, issued in 1965, which sold at the time for 4 kopecks. The commemorative stamp shows Sorge in full face with a scarlet background, together with a reproduction of the medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union.

Spies, A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Deeds & Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today, Jay Robert Nash, M Evans Company Inc. NY, 1997

http://hallworldhistory.com/russia/23.shtml, Stalin's Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring

http://www.randomhouse.com/nanatalese/bruno/sorge/sorgenotes/sorgenote3.html, The Sorge Spy Ring