Richard Sorge, German press correspondent in Tokyo and head of a very successful Soviet espionage group during World War II, was born on October 4th, 1895 in Baku, then located in Czarist Russia and now the capital of Azerbaijan.
He was the youngest of the nine children of Gustav Wilhelm Richard Sorge (1852-1907), a German mining engineer employed in the Caucasus, and his Russian wife Nina Semionovna Kobieleva.
His family moved to Berlin in 1898, where Sorge attended school. From October 1914 to March 1916, during World War I, he volunteered for service and fought at the Western Front.
There he was severely wounded, lost three of his fingers and broke both of his legs, causing a lifelong limp. Sorge was promoted, received the Iron Cross and later medically discharged.
Disillusioned by what he called the “meaninglessness” of war, during his convalescence he read the works of Karl Marx and started sympathizing with the Left.
Sorge then studied Economics in Berlin, Kiel and Hamburg, earning a doctorate in political science at the University of Hamburg in 1919, the same year he joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
From 1920 to 1922, Sorge lived in Solingen, a city in the Prussian Rhine Province, relocating to Frankfurt am Main in 1922, where in 1923 he helped to organize the library of the newly-founded subversive Institute for Social Research.
In 1924, he left for Moscow, where the International Liaison Department of the Communist International (Comintern), an organization founded by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) in 1919 to promote world revolution, recruited him as a junior agent.
In 1929 he spent a few months in the United Kingdom. After a brief stay in the Russian capital, he remained in Shanghai from 1930 to 1932 under the cover of a journalist and editor of a news agency. He traveled around the country and contacted members of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
In the Chinese metropolis he was introduced to Ozaki Hotsumi (born 1901), an idealistic young reporter from a samurai family who grew up in Taiwan.
Ozaki despised aggressive Japanese nationalism, considered the god-like status of the Emperor totally outdated and wanted to turn his homeland into a socialist state. He would enter Sorge’s spy ring in 1934.
After the Soviets had decided to organize an intelligence network in Japan in May 1933, Sorge was given the code name “Ramsay”. He first went back to Berlin to renew old contacts and to obtain an assignment in Nippon to hide his real intentions.
A professional liar, Sorge had managed to build a reputation as a loyal German and in summer 1933 he even became a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).
Sorge landed in Japan on September 6th, 1933 to write for the Frankfurter Zeitung, the most prestigious German newspaper at the time until was banned in August of 1943.
Having himself both foreign and local sources to rely on, he regularly met the German Ambassador, first Herbert von Dirksen (1882-1955) and then Major General Eugen Ott (1889 -1977), who both trusted his advice about various complex political topics.
On May 12th, 1941, Sorge correctly reported to the Russians that the Germans would attack them in June, but Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) allegedly didn’t believe him. In August 1941, he indicated that the Japanese were planning to advance against US, French and British targets in the Pacific rather than northward, freeing Soviet troops stationed at the Chinese border for badly needed service in the west of the country.
Ozaki, who since 1938 had been a member of Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro’s (1891-1945) inner circle, was arrested on October 14th, 1941. He would remain the only Japanese person to be hanged for treason, just hours before Sorge was executed on November 7th, 1944 at the Sugamo Prison in Tokyo.
Sorge’s detention followed on the 18th and under torture by the Kempeitai, the Military Police Corps of the Japanese Army from 1881 to 1945, he confessed his true identity. The Russians first denied any involvement, and only in 1964 Sorge was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union.
Sorge was a convinced Communist who saw himself as an ideological soldier with a sacred task, destined to carry the heavy burden of superior knowledge and higher motives than other lesser humans.
A typical intellectual snob and a self-professed champion of the working masses, in fact he was a pedant, a drunk and a womanizer who bragged even to his interrogators that his activity had no equivalent in history.
In any case, Sorge’s intrigues directly influenced the fate of many nations and probably changed the outcome of World War II. For quite a few, he is still the romantic hero that this dubious gentleman always wanted to be.