Spy who stayed out in the cold

There are shades of Philby in Richard Sorge, the hard-drinking, motorcycling, womanising rake whose cover as an arrogant Nazi convinced the German official community in Tokyo that he was one of them

Books
Richard Sorge on an East German stamp: Hard-drinking rake and successful secret agent

Richard Sorge was caught as a Soviet spy by the Japanese in 1941, tried, and executed. To add to his personal tragedy, the Soviet centre viewed him as unreliable and a possible double agent—for all the accurate strategic intelligence he and his network sent to Stalin—until almost the very end when his value was finally acknowledged. That didn’t stop the Soviet system exiling the Russian wife he had left behind to Siberia, where she died in 1943. Sorge’s story is of an ideologue who became jaded but remained loyal to the communist cause, even as he could see that cause being poisoned by Stalin.

Richard Sorge was an educated middle-class German whose nationalistic and imperialistic faith was shattered—along with his legs—in the First World War. Invalided out of the army, he became a communist agitator during the revolutionary period in Germany after the armistice. He graduated to working for the Comintern, the so-called Third International, founded in Moscow to stimulate Marxist revolution around the world. In this he looked up to his great-uncle Friedrich Sorge, an associate of Marx and Engels who helped establish the First International in the US in the 1870s.

Purged from the Comintern in 1929 as it was brought firmly under Russian control, Sorge was recruited to be an undercover intelligence officer in Soviet military intelligence. Working under his own name, he built up a profile as a journalist and was posted to Shanghai and then, in 1933, to Japan, as correspondent for several German publications including the Frankfurter Zeitung, then the most prestigious newspaper in Germany. Although sent to Tokyo to collect intelligence on Japan, which he chiefly did through a communist-sympathising Japanese agent, Hotsumi Ozaki, Sorge rapidly became a key confidant—and boon companion—of various members of the German embassy, who valued his expertise on Japan.

He joined the Nazi party early, in 1933 (the vetting apparently not turning up his radical past), and became effectively a part-time, locally-employed member of the embassy staff, compiling the daily summary of the Japanese press. He regularly contributed diplomatic reports and analysis which German diplomats passed off as their own. This gave him good access into German secrets, which he dutifully reported to Moscow. But as the Japanese net tightened around his network, he had no escape plan . He and his network waited fatalistically for arrest, not even attempting to destroy incriminating documents and equipment.

The case of Richard Sorge is fascinating partly because we know so much about it. The thoroughness of the Japanese police investigation and prosecution means there is plenty of documentation. Sorge and his team communicated with Moscow by radio, avoiding contact with the Soviet embassy so as to evade Japanese scrutiny. The Japanese knew there was a secret transmitter in Tokyo, and although they could not locate it, they intercepted and recorded almost all of the messages sent, which they were able to decipher after they had arrested and interrogated the network in 1941. And Sorge wrote a confession in prison, detailing his intelligence work for the Soviet Union in the expectation that Moscow would do a deal with Tokyo for his release—Japan and the Soviet Union had recently signed a non-agression pact (Stalin only declared war on Japan in August 1945, after the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima). Dozens of books have been written about the Sorge case, but Owen Matthews’s new book adds for the first time in English the Russian side, drawing on declassified Soviet archives. A former Newsweek correspondent in Moscow who has written extensively on Russia, Matthews brings not only his expertise as an historian of Russia but also his experience of the curious expatriate world that exists in most capital cities where foreign correspondents, diplomats and intelligence officers intermingle, pursuing their distinct but similar tasks.

The result is a gripping human story, with the complexity of a political thriller, even though we know the ending. There are shades of Philby in Sorge, the hard-drinking, motorcycling, womanising rake whose cover as an arrogant Nazi convinced the German official community in Tokyo that he was one of them, while through force of personality he ran a highly successful spy ring for seven years. The human drama brings alive the complex politics of Japan and its relationships with Russia and Germany in the run-up to the Second World War.

It also makes one wonder how on earth the Russians won the war given the damage Stalin’s purges did to Soviet institutions. In 1937, there were four successive heads of military intelligence, all of whom were dismissed and subsequently executed.

One of the arguments made in Moscow in 1941 for Sorge being a double agent was that if these four had been foreign spies, they must have told their foreign masters about Sorge. Thus, if Sorge was still in place in Tokyo, he must be cooperating with those foreign masters himself. What saved the Soviet Union was the remarkable (to us, now) ideological power of communism. Sorge’s multi-national network were recruited because they were communists working for the Comintern.

As intelligence history, this book is less successful. Matthews, like others before him, asserts that Sorge’s information that Japan would not attack north into the Soviet Union, but instead go south to secure a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, enabled Stalin to shift enough troops from the Soviet Far East to defeat the invading German army. Although Sorge’s reporting was clearly important—Stalin read, and annotated, some of his raw reports—by 1941 the Soviets had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes. They also had agent reporting from “Rote Kapelle” communists inside Germany.

A full assessment of Sorge’s value would need to look at what other intelligence the Soviets had at the time, and how that intelligence was analysed, assessed and circulated to policymakers. Besides being a somewhat dry exercise, without full access to Soviet archives (which may in any case have been selectively weeded) this is not yet possible. And for intelligence geeks, there is not much on the technical detail of Sorge’s tradecraft—how he securely ran his network and sent reports to Moscow, the microfilm, the radio systems, the safety signals. Such matters occupy much of an intelligence officer’s time and energy.

This is an excellent history, which sheds new light on Sorge and his work. Unless something significant turns up about him in the German Nazi-era intelligence archives, it is likely to be the definitive work on him in English.


An Impeccable Spy:
Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent
By Owen Matthews
Bloomsbury, 448, £25