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The International Writers Magazine:

The Unknown King of Spies
• James Morford
Kim Philby of England´s MI6, Aldrich Aames of the CIA, or fictional characters, George Smiley and James Bond, are spies that come to the public mind. Richard Sorge, historically perhaps the most effective spy in fact or fiction, is familiar only to the few. Yet Richard Sorge made enormous contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. Without his help, the Nazis may well have defeated the USSR. He lived a life that seems like a movie, and he was handsome enough to play the celluloid protagonist. A real life James Bond, Sorge was a prodigious womanizer and capable of physical stunts needed for the Bond films. He was also intelligent, perceptive, and fanatical.


The youngest child of Wilhelm Richard Sorge, a German specialist in oil drilling machinery, and Nina Sorge, his Russian wife, Sorge was born on October 4, 1895 in Sabunchi, a southern Caucasian suburb of Baku, Azerbaijan, not far from the Caspian Sea. Raised in an upper middle class household, he was a child that never went without. ¨Economic worries had no place in our home,¨ he was quoted as saying.

The boy adored his kind and loving mother. In 1914, for fear of frightening her, he resisted revealing he had volunteered for the German military. The father, autocratic and aloof, was a staunch nationalist, and from all reports did not have all that much influence on Sorge, but that is conjectural. Not much is known about his family.

When Sorge was age nine, his father´s contract with the Southern Caucasion Oil Company expired, and the family returned to Berlin. His school days were not a happy time for Richard. German junior and middle schools required memorization and rote learning, and this bored him. He did enjoy athletics, starring in track and field. Still, school proved no outlet for his restless imagination, and in 1914 he joined the battalion of the 3rd Guard, Field Artillery of the German Army. He saw action in Flanders where he witnessed battalion companions mowed down by machine gun fire. ¨From the school-bench to the slaughter-block,¨ Richard commented with disgust.

In l916, on the Eastern Front, he was severely wounded, losing three of his fingers and shrapnel breaking his legs so badly he had a life-long limp. He received the Iron Cross for outstanding bravery and medically discharged.

While in the hospital and recuperating from his wounds, Richard Sorge began a love affair with a nurse whose name is not known. The nurse had a Marxist father who discussed politics and economics with Sorge. Richard read Marx and Engels. By the time the war ended. Sorge had become a dedicated Marxist. He attributed this not to the nurse, nor to her father, but to the War. ¨The World War from 1914 to 1918 exercised a profound influence on my whole life. Had I been swayed by no other considerations, this war alone would have made me a Communist.¨

Once out of the hospital he joined the German Communist arts society and also started college studies. By l919 he had earned a PHD in political science at the University of Hamburg. He began working as a teacher, but not able to stop talking Marxism, he was fired. Sorge, the true believer, saw the crumbling bourgeoise German world around him as confirmation of Marxism. ¨I resolved not only to support the movement theoretically and ideologically, but to actually become a part of it myself.¨
For recreation Richard Sorge slept with women, all kinds of women. He had an affair with one of his former professor´s wives, Christiane Gerlach, who years later described her feelings when she first met Sorge: ¨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.¨

Frau Gerlach divorced her husband and married Sorge in l922. The marriage lasted two years.
Since Sorge talked Marxism at every opportunity, the German police labeled him a Communist trouble maker, and were prepared to arrest him. Before being arrested he left Germany and journeyed to Moscow, where he became a junior agent for the Comintern, headquarters for the International Communist movement.

At the Comintern Sorge met Dimitri Manuilisky, the head of the Comintern. While Sorge worked as a liason with foreign Communist parties, Manuilisky educated Sorge in espionage and saw to it that he learned foreign languages. By l921 Sorge had worked in Westphalia, Germany, and married a German girl.

A more sophisticated Sorge moved to Frankfurt. He studied the business community and worked as a journalist. He met Russian scholar D. Riaznov, who introduced him to a number of ranking Russian intelligence officers.

Sorge and his wife went back to Moscow. He divorced his wife and worked for the Red Army´s fourth department at the GRU, where he remained his entire career. In l929 the young PHD received his official Communist party membership card, and was assigned to work a year in Great Britain studying the British labor movement. In l930, the GRU sent him to Shanghai to help initiate a Communist revolution in China.

Charismatic and charming, Sorge had one lover after another in Germany, USSR, China, or wherever else he happened to be. His third wife eventually divorced him in Moscow, but this hardly slowed down the dashing member of the GRU who found women a pleasurable hobby. Luckily for him, he was well liked and respected by men; some cuckold husbands seeking his company even after discovering he slept with their wives.

Following three years of espionage work in China, Richard Sorge returned to the USSR and again married, this time a drama student named Katya Maximova. As to why Sorge bothered with formal marriage is something of a mystery. Maybe each woman insisted on it. Or perhaps the bourgeois world still had a hold on the sensual Russian. Regardless, his womanizing was for real. It is said that once, when in a hospital following a motorcycle accident, an earthquake jolted the building and to protect him three nurses ran into his room and hurled themselves onto his bed.

Moscow, in the early 1930´s, feared Japanese aggression from the East, and the GRU assigned Sorge to Tokyo to discover true Japanese intentions. As a cover for his activities, Sorge journeyed to Germany where he convinced a newspaper editor to accept articles sent by Sorge from Japan. This same newspaper editor gave him a letter of introduction to Colonel Eugene Ott, the German military attaché in Tokyo.

By September l933 Sorge had arrived in Tokyo, gained access to the German embassy, and cultivated a friendship with not only Colonel Ott, but the German ambassador, Herbert von Dirksen. For proof of German bias, Sorge had joined the Nazi Party, but cleverly made sure not to become too boisterous in its support, often pretending scorn for Nazi decisions. Soon, through frequent and unconcealed drinking and womanizing, he acquired a reputation in Tokyo as a playboy, often seen racing through traffic on a motorcycle traveling to a bar and a secret meeting with a married woman. His reputation became hardly that of a serious active spy taking orders, a perception obviously not harmful to his purpose.

In l934, Colonel Ott invited Sorge accompany him on a tour of Manchuria. There Sorge wrote well- received newspaper articles that augmented his status in Berlin. Sorge repayed Colonel Ott by bedding his wife. Ott knew of the affair and thought it would soon blow over, which it did, but it remains an example of how highly the diplomat valued Sorge´s friendship. Ott called the man, code named Ramsay by his colleagues in Moscow, ¨the irresistible.´´ All that met Sorge fell under his spell.
But it wasn´t all Richard Sorge in Japan. He had help in running his Tokyo spy network: Max Clausen, a German Communist and radio operator, Branko Vukelic, a Yugoslavian Communist working as a journalist, who did microfilm duties, and Hotsumi Ozaki, who possessed political influence and was an expert on China. Ozaki developed a close relationship with Fumimaro Konoe, the Japanese Prime Minister, and she copied secret documents for Sorge, who then forwarded them to Moscow

Over the years Sorge kept Moscow supplied with information about the German-Japan Pact and warnings about the eventual attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1941, Sorge informed Moscow of Operation Barbarrossa, code name of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Stalin stupidly ignored the information. At the time the Soviet dictator thought his spy in Japan was, among other things, an irresponsible whore monger; a view as mistaken as it was ironic since Sorge deliberately set out not to hide his drinking and wanton sex. He was the perfect spy, one who acted what he was, and what he was served as cover for what he also was.

Richard Sorge´s most important information passed onto Moscow, information this time Stalin believed, was that Japan would not attack the USSR. After receiving the news, Stalin released multiple divisions guarding against Japanese invasion that reinforced the defenses of his dangerously besieged army outside Moscow. The Soviets defeated the Germans and the threat ended.
Although many analysts think the Germans at Moscow would have failed against an unreinforced defense, it was the first major defeat of the German Army, and immensely important in Stalin´s ability to carry on the war. Sorge, if nothing else, had made that victory easier. The Soviet Union now had the confidence the Nazis could be defeated.

While keeping up his deception as a journalist, Sorge lived in a rented house, and with typical flamboyance, one within sight of a Japanese police station. In 1936 he met a pretty girl, Hanako Ishi, a waitress. It didn´t take long before she moved into his house.

By l938, colonel Ott became General Ott, and was promoted to German ambassador to Japan. So close was his life now intertwined with Richard Sorge, that Ott not only shared with Sore his drafts, but sought their approval before cabling them to Berlin. Even the embassy staff would seek Sorge´s opinions of diplomatic actions. Incredibly, it was not too long before the ambassador signed his name to dispatches solely written by Sorge. A Soviet spy writing cables for the German Ambassador to Japan! Ian Fleming would have thought it improbable!

And then it all came tumbling down. In October of 1941, the Japanese police questioned a sub-agent of Ozaki´s named Yotuko Miyagi. Under interrogation, Miyagi had named Ozaki and Sorge as Communist agents. Sorge was arrested on October l8.

At first, Sorge resisted talking, but after a week of interrogation, provided the police swore not to prosecute his lover, Hanako Ishi, as well as the wives of his colleagues, Sorge confessed everything.
To make sure the police did not harm his lover or the wives of his friends, illustrates another paradox of this unusual man. Even under extreme duress he possessed the honor and the courage to save his friends [they were probably innocent, but this was unknown to the Japanese Police.]
In 1942, Sorge was convicted of attempting to overthrow the Imperial Japanese system and sentenced to death. He spent nearly three years in Sugamo prison while the Japanese three times attempted working out a trade with the Soviet Union, Japanese captives exchanged for Sorge. Each time Stalin denied knowledge of Sorge´s existence. It is thought Stalin did not want the world to discover he ignored the 1941 warning of a German invasion, an oversight that almost cost the Soviets victory. Perhaps, Stalin also feared Sorge might reveal reasons behind the reinforcing of his Moscow defenses, and mitigate Stalin´s vision as savior of Mother Russia.

Regardless, it is clear that Stalin did not mind Richard Sorge being executed. The Japanese obliged, and on November 7, 1944, he was hanged at Sugamo Prison.

For years the great Soviet spy remained relatively unknown by the world. Then a French movie of the 1960´s, ¨Who Are You, Mr. Sorge?¨ had a popular run in the Soviet Union. The then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, happened to see the film, and had Sorge bestowed Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor the nation could give.

Today, the spy that Stalin ignored, has a Moscow street bearing his name, and commemorative stamps issued in his honor. Yet his name is still relatively unknown to a world changed by Richard Sorge.
© James Morford July 2012

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