An anti-fascist spy who defied Hitler's Nazis and was betrayed by Stalin

Richard Sorge.

In Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent
Owen Matthews
Bloomsbury, 2019
435 pages

Dr Richard Sorge, a German communist who penetrated the innermost political and military circles of the Japanese and German governments for a decade from the mid-1930s, only ever had one good thing to say about the Nazis. His earliest party writing (a turgid pamphlet on The Accumulation of Capital and Rosa Luxemburg) "was", he jokingly said, "so clumsy and immature I hoped the Nazis burned every last copy".

Everything else Sorge did, like stealing the secret war plans of the two biggest anti-communist World War II Axis powers, was dedicated to the defeat of fascism.

Journalist Owen Matthews begins his spy tale with a young Sorge, head full of the nationalistic and romantic notions of war typical of his petit-bourgeois upbringing, tasting disillusionment on his first day of action in World War I when his German student battalion was machine-gunned to shreds in an advance from the trenches.

A radical political transformation of Sorge was incubated in hospital as he recovered from three partially-amputated fingers (and a shattered leg that gave him a permanent limp). It came courtesy of a left-wing nurse who provided him with works by Karl Marx, Federick Engels and Georg Hegel ("the ladder to Marx").

Sorge joined the German Communist Party, viewing it as that country’s best anti-war, anti-Nazi revolutionary force. His skills as an organiser, teacher and activist, his high intelligence (he earned a doctorate in economics) and his multilingualism, brought him, as an economic and political analyst, into the fold of the Comintern, the international organisation of the world’s communist parties.

Turfed out from an increasingly Stalinised Comintern for political heresy, Sorge nonetheless was picked up by Soviet military intelligence (the Fourth Department of the Red Army). It needed good agents who could acquire and evaluate the real world military threats to the Soviet Union rather than just dance to Stalin’s paranoid political fantasies about "saboteurs", "wreckers and other deviationist "anti-Soviet" elements.

Undercover as a Nazi Party member, journalist and academic expert on Japan, Sorge gained a high-level position in the German embassy in Tokyo for nine undetected years. His intimate knowledge of Japanese politics and military matters (supplied by leftist Japanese agents in Sorge’s spy ring) made Sorge indispensable to the Nazi embassy as an authoritative source on all things Japanese.

Trusted as "one of them", Sorge had free run of secret Nazi intelligence. His innate gregariousness and liking for liquor also enabled him to woo visiting German military advisers as "bottle-companions" in the nightlife venues of Ginza, "gutting them like a fat Christmas goose", he boasted, when they drunkenly confided all.

Sorge’s intelligence gold was, however, turned to dust by Stalin, who distrusted independent thinkers, particularly foreign communists. Stalin saw real and imagined political opponents everywhere, marking them for ruthless elimination in the bloody party purges of 1937–38.

The Comintern was viciously purged, with execution, imprisonment, deportation, or the labour camps of the Gulag awaiting its members. Sorge’s Comintern past placed him in personal jeopardy. His highly prudent decision to disobey Stalin’s blanket recall of overseas agents at the height of the purges was added to his political debit column. "Politically inadequate", said his file.

A grim fate was postponed, however, thanks to Sorge’s unique position in the heart of the enemy. From there, he revealed an unfolding German/Japanese military alliance and then Hitler’s plan for Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi’s surprise invasion of the Soviet Union.

Sorge’s intelligence bosses in Moscow, however, treated this latter news as enemy disinformation from a suspected double agent. They suppressed it, as it would contradict Stalin’s deluded belief that Hitler would not invade (at least until Britain fell to the Nazis) because of Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler.

The truncated life expectancy of Soviet military intelligence chiefs (five of the Fourth Department’s six successive heads had been executed during the purges) meant that fear of displeasing Stalin outweighed objective evaluation of intelligence reports.

Sorge was eventually tumbled by the Japanese police. Hopelessly pinned in the searchlights of the confessions of his arrested spy ring members, Sorge agreed to an offer to lessen the sentence of his associates by confessing all. Sorge also expected that Moscow would intervene and extract their prized agent (as Moscow routinely did) through spy swaps or other deals with their captor country.

Mostly, however, Sorge decided to come clean on his espionage because he wanted to come clean politically. Tired of the subterfuge of the double life of the spy, and frustrated by years of having to bottle-up his true politics behind fake bonhomie with Nazis, Sorge let it all come out in a frank written confession.

Executed in Tokyo in 1944, Sorge lived just long enough to be cheered in his cell by news of the Nazis’ defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad (one of the turning points in the war).

Just before his feet plunged through the gallows’ trapdoor, Sorge proudly proclaimed his communist fealty with three loud, clear phrases (in Japanese) ‘Sakigun [the Red Army]!,  Kokusai Kyosanto [the International Communist Party]!, Soviet Kyosanto [the Soviet Communist Party]!’. 

Pointedly missing, however, was one word: "Stalin."

As Sorge had come to see, Stalin’s party purges and Great Terror had betrayed the socialist principles of the Russian Revolution politically. Stalin's rejection of Sorge’s foreknowledge of Operation Barbarossa had also betrayed the Soviet Union militarily, and Stalin's failure to save Sorge from the noose had betrayed Sorge personally. It took two decades for Sorge to be officially rehabilitated, by Nikita Khrushchev in 1964.

Politics aside (and Matthews’ book packs the obligatory hostile caricature of Leninist Marxism), spy nerds (including John le Carré) regard Sorge as one of the greatest ever secret agents. Indeed he was but, politics included, Sorge -- the revolutionary socialist, internationalist and anti-fascist -- was so much more than just an espionage whiz. 

He was a meritorious, and tragically martyred, communist revolutionary.

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