The one thing that made my life a little different from the average was a strong awareness of the fact that I had been born in the southern Caucasus and that we had moved to Berlin when I was very small.
Sorge was born in the settlement of Sabunchi, a suburb of Baku, Baku Governorate of the Russian Empire (modern Azerbaijan). He was the youngest of nine children of Wilhelm Richard Sorge (d. 1907), a German mining Engineer employed by the Caucasian Oil Company, and his Russian wife Nina Semionovna Kobieleva. His father's lucrative contract expired a few years later, and the family moved back to Germany. In Sorge's own words,
Sorge enlisted in the German Army in October 1914; shortly after the outbreak of World War I. At age 18 he was posted to a field artillery battalion with the 3rd Guards Division. He served on the Western Front, and was severely wounded there in March 1916. Shrapnel cut off three of his fingers and broke both his legs, causing a lifelong limp. He was promoted to the rank of corporal, received the Iron Cross and was later medically discharged. While fighting in the war Sorge, who had started out in 1914 as a right-wing nationalist, became disillusioned by what he called the "meaninglessness" of the war, and he moved to the left.
During his convalescence he read Marx and became a communist, mainly due to the influence of the father of a nurse with whom he had developed a relationship. He spent the rest of the war studying economics at the universities of Berlin, Kiel and Hamburg. Sorge received his doctorate in political science (Dr. rer. pol.) from Hamburg in August 1919. He also joined the Communist Party of Germany. His political views, however, got him fired from both a teaching job and coal mining work. He emigrated to the Soviet Union, where he became a junior agent for the Comintern in Moscow.
From 1920 to 1922, Sorge lived in Solingen, in present-day North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He was joined there by Christiane Gerlach, ex-wife of Dr Kurt Albert Gerlach, a wealthy communist and professor of political science in Kiel, who had taught Sorge. Christine Gerlach later remembered about meeting Sorge for the first time: “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….” Sorge and Christiane married in May 1921. In 1922, he was relocated to Frankfurt, where he gathered intelligence about the Business community. In the summer of 1923, he took part in the Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche ("First Marxist Work Week" conference) in Ilmenau. Sorge continued his work as a Journalist, and also helped organize the library of the Institute for Social Research, a new Marxist think-tank in Frankfurt.
In 1924, he and Christiane moved to Moscow, where he officially joined the International Liaison Department of the Comintern, which was also an OGPU intelligence-gathering body. Apparently, Sorge's dedication to duty led to his divorce. In 1929, Sorge became part of the Red Army's Fourth Department (the later GRU, or military intelligence). He remained with the Department for the rest of his life.
Ironically, Sorge's spying for the Soviets in Japan during the late-1930s was probably safer for him than if he had been in Moscow. Claiming too many pressing responsibilities, he disobeyed Stalin's orders to return to the Soviet Union in 1937 during the Great Purge, as he realized the risk of arrest and execution, given Stalin's general paranoia (especially towards the intelligence community) and Sorge's German citizenship. In fact, two of Sorge's earliest GRU handlers, Jānis Bērziņš and his successor, Artur Artuzov, were shot during the purges. In 1938, the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop was promoted to foreign minister, and to replace Ribbentrop, Dirksen was sent to London. Ribbentrop promoted General Ott to be Dirksen's replacement. Ott, by now aware that Sorge was sleeping with his wife, let his friend Sorge have "free run of the embassy night and day" as one German diplomat later recalled. Ott tolerated Sorge's affair with his wife, on the grounds that Sorge was such a charismatic man that women were always falling in love with him, and so it was only natural that Sorge would sleep with his wife. Ott liked to call Sorge Richard der Unwiderstehliche (“Richard the Irresistible”) as his charm made him very attractive to women. Ott greatly valued Sorge as a source of information about the secretive world of Japanese politics and especially Japan's war with China as he could found that Sorge knew things about Japan that no other Westerner knew, to such an extent that did not care about Sorge's affair with his wife Helma.
As a Journalist, Sorge established himself as an expert on Chinese agriculture. In this role, he travelled around the country, contacting members of the Chinese Communist Party. In January 1932, Sorge reported on fighting between Chinese and Japanese troops in the streets of Shanghai. In December he was recalled to Moscow.
Between 1933 and 1934 Sorge formed a network of informants. His agents had contacts with senior politicians and picked up information on Japanese foreign policy. His agent Ozaki developed a close contact with Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. Ozaki copied secret documents for Sorge.
In October 1934, General Ott and Sorge made an extended visit to the sham-independent "Empire of Manchukuo", which was actually a Japanese colony, and Sorge, who knew the Far East far better than Ott, wrote up the report describing Manchukuo that Ott submitted to Berlin under his name. As Ott's report was received very favorably at both the Bendlerstrasse and the Wilhelmstrasse, Sorge soon become one of Ott's main sources of information about the Japanese empire, creating a very close friendship between the two. In 1935, Sorge passed on to Moscow a planning document provided to him by Ozaki, which strongly suggested that Japan was not planning on attacking the Soviet Union in 1936. Sorge guessed correctly that Japan would invade China in July 1937, and there was no danger of a Japanese invasion of Siberia. Sorge lived in a house in a respectable neighborhood in Tokyo, where he was mostly noted for his heavy drinking and his reckless way of riding his motorcycle. In the summer of 1936, a waitress at a bar frequented by Sorge named Hanako Ishii moved into Sorge's house to become his common-law wife. An American reporter who knew Sorge later wrote that he "created the impression of being a playboy, almost a wastrel, the very antithesis of a keen and dangerous spy."
As he appeared to be an ardent Nazi, Sorge was welcome at the German Embassy. One Japanese Journalist who knew Sorge described him in 1935 as "a typical, swashbuckling, arrogant Nazi...quick-tempered, hard-drinking". As the Japan correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Sorge developed a network of sources about Japanese politics, and soon German diplomats, including the ambassador Herbert von Dirksen came to depend upon Sorge as a source of intelligence about the fractious and secretive world of Japanese politics. The Japanese values of honne and tatame (the former literally means "true sound", roughly "as things are" while the latter literally means "façade" or roughly "as things appear"), namely the tendency of Japanese people to hide their real feelings and profess to believe in things that they do not, made deciphering Japan's politics especially difficult. That Sorge was fluent in Japanese further enhanced his status as a Japanologist. Sorge was very interested in Asian history and culture, especially those of China and Japan, and when sober tried to learn as much as he could. During this time, Sorge befriended General Eugen Ott, the German military attache to Japan while seducing his wife Helma. As military attache, Ott sent reports back to Berlin containing his assessments of the Imperial Japanese Army, which Frau Ott copied and passed on to Sorge, who in his turn passed them on to Moscow (though it should be noted Frau Ott believed Sorge was merely working for the Nazi Party). As the Japanese Army had been trained by a German military mission in the 19th century, German influence on the Japanese Army was strong, and Ott had good contacts with Japanese officers.
On 26 February 1936, when a military coup d'état attempt took place in Tokyo, which led to much of the Japanese elite being slaughtered by the rebels, Dirksen and the rest of the German embassy were highly confused as to why this was happening. Dirksen, Ott and other diplomats were at a loss as to explain the coup which was meant to achieve a mystical "Showa Restoration" to the Wilhelmstrasse, which led them to turn to Sorge, the resident Japan expert for help. Using notes supplied to him by Ozaki, Sorge submitted a report, which stated the "Imperial Way" faction in the Japanese Army, which had attempted the coup, were younger officers from rural backgrounds upset at the impoverishment of the countryside, and the "Imperial Way" faction was not communist or socialist, just merely anti-capitalist, believing that big Business had subverted the emperor's will. Sorge's report was used as the basis of Dirksen's explanation of the coup attempt which he sent back to the Wilelmstrasse, who were well satisfied at the ambassador's "brilliant" explanation of the coup attempt.
He was warned by his commanders not to have contact with the underground Japanese Communist Party or with the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo. His intelligence network in Japan included Red Army officer and radio operator Max Clausen, Hotsumi Ozaki, and two other Comintern agents, Branko Vukelić, 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. Max Clausen's wife Anna acted as ring courier from time to time. From summer 1937, Clausen operated under cover of his Business, M Clausen Shokai, suppliers of blueprint machinery and reproduction services. The Business had been set up with Soviet funds but in time became a commercial success. Ozaki was a Japanese man from a very influential family who had grown up in Taiwan (at the time a Japanese colony) and was an idealistic Sinophile who believed that Japan, which had started its modernization with the Meiji Restoration, had much to teach China. However, Ozaki was shocked by the racism of Japanese policy towards China with the Chinese being depicted as a people fit only to be slaves. Ozaki believed that the existing political system of Japan with the Emperor being worshipped as a living god had to go, and to save Japan from fascism required that Japan be "reconstructed as a socialist state".
On 13 May 1938, while riding his motorcycle down the streets of Tokyo, a very intoxicated Sorge clashed into a wall and was badly injured. As Sorge was carrying around notes given to him by Ozaki at the time, had the police discovered the documents his cover would have been blown, but a member of his spy ring was able to get the hospital to remove the documents before the police arrived. In 1938, Sorge reported to Moscow that the Battle of Lake Khasan was due to over-zealous officers in the Kwantung Army and there were no plans in Tokyo for a general war with the Soviet Union. Unaware that Berzin had been shot as a "Trotskyite" in July 1938, Sorge sent him a letter in October 1938 reading:
Sorge never learned that his friend Berzin had been shot as a traitor. The two most authoritative sources for intelligence for the Soviet Union about Germany in the late-1930s were Sorge and Rudolf von Scheliha, the First Secretary at the German embassy in Warsaw. Unlike Sorge who believed in communism, Scheliha's reasons for spying were due to money problems as he had a lifestyle beyond his salary as a diplomat, and he turned to selling secrets to provide additional income. Scheliha sold documents to the NKVD indicating that Germany was planning from the late-1938 on turning Poland into a satellite state, and after the Poles refused to fall into line, on invading Poland from March 1939 onward. Sorge for his part reported that Japan did not intend for the border war with the Soviet Union that began in May 1939 to escalate into all-out war. Sorge also reported that the attempt to turn the Anti-Comintern Pact into a military alliance was floundering; the Germans wanted the alliance to be directed against Britain while the Japanese wanted the alliance to be directed against the Soviet Union. Sorge's reports that the Japanese were not planning on invading Siberia were disbelieved in Moscow and on 1 September 1939, Sorge was attacked in a message from Moscow reading:
Sorge is most famous for his Service in Japan in 1940 and 1941, when he provided information about Adolf Hitler's plan to attack the Soviet Union, although he did not succeed in finding out the exact date of the attack.
Such was the popularity of Augstein's articles that the German author Hans Hellmut Kirst published a spy novel featuring Sorge as the hero while Hans-Otto Meissner wrote the book Der Fall Sorge (The Sorge Case) that was a cross between a novel and a history, blending fact and fiction together with a greater emphasis on the latter. Meissner had served as third secretary at the German Embassy in Tokyo and knew Sorge. Meissner's book, which was written as a thriller that engaged in "orientalism" with the portrayal of Japan as a strange, mysterious country where the enigmatic and charismatic master-spy Sorge operated as he infiltrated both the Japanese state and the German Embassy. Meissner presented Sorge as the consummate spy, a cool professional dressed in a rumpled trench coat and fedora who was a great womanizer, and much of the book is concerned with Sorge's various relationships. Later on, Meissner presented Sorge as a rather megalomaniac figure, in the process changing Sorge's motivation from loyalty to communism to colossal egoism, as he has Sorge rant about his equal dislike for both Stalin and Hitler, and has him say that he only supplies enough information to both regimes to manipulate them into destroying each other as it suits him to play one against the other. At the book's climax, Sorge has agreed to work for the American OSS in exchange for being settled to settle in Hawaii and he is in the process of learning that Japan is planning on bombing Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, but his love of women prove to be his undoing as the Japanese Dancer Kiyomi rejects his sexual advances. Sorge finally seduces Kiyomi, but loses valuable time, which allows the Kempeitai to arrest him.
He was incarcerated in Sugamo Prison. Initially, the Japanese believed that, due to his Nazi Party membership and German ties, Sorge was an Abwehr agent. However, the Abwehr denied that he was one of their agents. Under torture, Sorge confessed, but the Soviet Union denied he was a Soviet agent. The Japanese made three overtures to the Soviet Union, offering to trade Sorge for one of their own spies. However, the Soviet Union declined all the offers, maintaining that Sorge was unknown to them. In September 1942, Sorge's wife Katya Maximova was arrested by the NKVD on the charges that she was a "German spy", since she was married to the German citizen Sorge (that Sorge was a GRU agent did not matter to the NKVD), and was deported to the Gulag. Maximova died in the Gulag in 1943. Hanako Ishii, a Japanese woman who loved Sorge and the only woman whom Sorge loved in return, was the only person who tried to visit Sorge during his time in Sugamo Prison. During one of her visits, she expressed concern that Sorge under torture by the Kempeitai would name her as involved in his spy ring, but he promised her that he would never mention her name to the Kempeitai. The Kempeitai was much feared in Japan for its use of torture as an investigation method. Sorge ultimately struck a deal with the Kempeitai that if they would spare Ishii and the wives of the other members of the spy ring, he would reveal all. Ishii was never arrested by the Kempeitai Sorge told his Kempeital captors:
Richard Sorge was hanged on 7 November 1944, at 10:20 Tokyo time in Sugamo Prison and was pronounced dead 19 minutes later. Hotsumi Ozaki had been hanged earlier in the same day. Sorge's body was not cremated due to wartime fuel shortages. He was buried in the nearby Zoshigaya Cemetery.
After hounding the U.S. Occupation authorities, Sorge's Japanese lover Hanako Ishii (1911 - July 1, 2000) located and recovered his skeleton on 16 November 1949. After identifying him by his distinctive dental work and a poorly set broken-leg she had him cremated at the Shimo-Ochial Cremation Centre. Nearly a year later she had his ashes interred in Section 17, Area 1, Row 21, Plot 16 at Tama Cemetery in Fuchū, Tokyo. She had erected a black marble tombstone bearing the epitaph which reads, in Japanese: "Here lies a hero who sacrificed his life fighting against war and for world peace."
Initially, Sorge's reputation in West Germany in the 1950s was a highly negative one, with Sorge depicted as a traitor working for the Soviet Union who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Wehrmacht Soldiers in the winter of 1941-42. The 1950s were a transition moment in the German memory of Nazi Germany as those Germans who had supported the Third Reich sought a version of history that presented them as victims rather than as followers of Hitler, portrayed Nazism as an aberration in German history that had no connections to traditional Prussian values, portrayed the Wehrmacht as an honorable fighting force that had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and presented the Soviets as guilty of crimes that even more horrific than those committed by the Nazis. Given this way of remembering the Nazi past in the 1950s, Operation Barbarossa and Germany's war in the East were seen as a heroic and legitimate war against the Soviet Union that Germans should not be ashamed of.
Sorge was unknown to the world until 1952 when U.S general Charles A. Willoughby published his book The Shanghai Conspiracy, claiming that the Sorge spy ring was still in existence, and had caused the "loss of China" in 1949 and was in the process of taking over the U.S. government. The Shanghai Conspiracy was endorsed by Senator Joseph McCarthy and by many members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The American Japanologist Michael Schaller wrote that Willoughby was indeed correct that Sorge was a Soviet spy and that certain left-wing American journalists who worked with Sorge in Shanghai in the early-1930s were probably also Soviet agents, but much of what Willoughby wrote reflected the paranoid mind of one of the most incompetent military intelligence officers ever in American history.
In 1954, West German film Director Veit Harlan wrote and directed the film Betrayal of Germany (Verrat an Deutschland) about Sorge's espionage in Japan. Harlan had been the favorite filmmaker of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and directed many propaganda films, including Jud Süss. Harlan's film is a romantic drama, starring Harlan's wife Kristina Söderbaum, as Sorge's love interest. The film was publicly premiered by the distributor before it passed the rating system, hence withdrawn from more public performances and finally released after some editing was done.
Partsch noted that both books are very much concerned with Sorge's womanizing (which neither author exaggerated), but presented this aspect of his personality in different ways. Kirst portrayed Sorge's womanizing as part of the same self-destructive urges that led him to spy for the Soviet Union, while Meissner depicted Sorge's womanizing as part of his callous narcissism, and as his principal weakness, as his Desire for Kiyomi finally destroys him. In turn, this led to different depictions of the male body. Meissner portrayed the male body as the seductive instrument that entices female Desire, and led women into ill-advised relationships with Sorge, whose body is perfectly fit and attractive to women. Kirst by contrast, correctly notes that Sorge walked with a pronounced limp due to a war wound, which he has Sorge sarcastically say was due to his "gallantry", and in his book, Sorge's wounded body served as a metaphor for his wounded soul. Partsch further commented that Meissner's book is a depoliticized and personalized account of the Sorge spy ring as he omitted any mention of Hotsumi Ozaki (an idealistic man who sincerely believed his country was on the wrong course), and he portrayed Sorge as a "Faustian man" motivated only by his Vanity to exercise "a god-like power over the world", giving Sorge "an overblown, pop-Nietzschen sense of destiny". The ultimate "message" of Meissner's book was that Sorge was an amoral, egoistical individual whose actions had nothing to do with ideology, and that the only reason why Germany was defeated by the Soviet Union was due to Sorge's spying, thereby suggests Germany lost the war only because of "fate". Meissner followed the "great man" interpretation of history with few "great men" deciding the events of the world with everyone else reduced to passive bystanders. By contrast, Kirst pictured Sorge as a victim, as a mere pawn in a "murderous chess game", and emphasized Sorge's opposition to the Nazi regime as motivation for his actions. Kirst further noted that Sorge was betrayed by his own masters as after his arrest, the Soviet regime denounced him as a "Trotskyite", and made no effort to save him. Partsch concluded that the two rival interpretations of Sorge put forward in the novels by Meissner and Kirst in 1955 have shaped Sorge's image in the West, especially Germany, from the time of their publication to the present.
On 5 November 1964, 20 years after his death, the Soviet government awarded Sorge with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Sorge's widow Hanako Ishii received a Soviet and Russian pension until her death in July 2000 in Tokyo. In the 1960s, the KGB, seeking to improve its image in the Soviet Union, began the cult of the "hero spy" with former Chekists working abroad being celebrated as the great "hero spies" in books, films, and newspapers. Sorge was one of those selected for "hero spy" status. In fact, the Soviets had broken Japanese codes in 1941, and already knew independently of the intelligence provided by Sorge that Japan had decided to "strike south" (i.e., attacking the US and the UK) instead of "striking north" (i.e., attacking the USSR). The Kremlin gave much greater attention to signals intelligence in evaluating threats from Japan in the years 1931-1941 than it did intelligence gathered by the Sorge spy ring, but as Soviet intelligence did not like to mention the achievements of its code-breakers, Soviet propaganda from 1964 onward gloried Sorge as a "hero spy", and avoided all mention that the Soviets had broken the Japanese codes. The Soviets during the Cold War liked to give the impression that all of their intelligence came from "humint" (human intelligence) rather than "sigint" (signals intelligence) as to fool Western nations about the extent that they collected information via sigint. A testament to Sorge's fame in the Soviet Union was that even through Sorge worked for the GRU, not the NKVD, the KGB, which had far more power than the Red Army, claimed him as one of their "hero spies" in the 1960s.
In 1965, three East German journalists published Dr. Sorge funkt aus Tokyo in celebration of Sorge and his actions. In the lead up to the award, Sorge's claim that Friedrich Adolf Sorge was his grandfather was repeated in the Soviet press. In a strange Cold War oddity, these authors stirred up a free speech scandal with patriotic letters to former Nazis in West Germany, causing the Verfassungsschutz to issue a stern warning in early-1967: "If you receive mail from a certain Julius Mader, do not reply to him and pass on the letter to the respective security authorities."
In 1971, a comic book based on Sorge's life, titled Wywiadowca XX wieku ("20th Century intelligence officer"), was published in the People's Republic of Poland to familiarize younger readers with Sorge.
In his 1981 book, Their Trade is Treachery, author Chapman Pincher asserted that Sorge, a GRU agent himself, recruited Englishman Roger Hollis in China in the early-1930s to provide information. Hollis later returned to England, joined MI5 just before World War II began, and eventually became director-general of MI5 from 1956 to 1965. As detailed by former MI5 staffer Peter Wright in his 1988 book Spycatcher, Hollis was accused of being a Soviet agent, but despite several lengthy and seemingly thorough investigations, no conclusive proof was ever obtained.
One of Aleksandar Hemon's first stories in English is "The Sorge Spy Ring" (TriQuarterly, 1997).