Richard Sorge

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Richard Sorge
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1985-1003-020, Richard Sorge.jpg
Richard Sorge in 1940
Nickname(s) Ramsay
Born October 4, 1895
Baku, Azerbaijan, Russian Empire
Died November 7, 1944(1944-11-07) (aged 49)
Tokyo, Japan
Allegiance  German Empire (till 1918)
 USSR (starting 1920)
Service/branch Imperial German Army
Soviet Army (GRU)
Years of service Germany 1914–1916, USSR 1920–1941
Awards Hero of the Soviet Union
Order of Lenin
Iron Cross, II class (for WWI campaign)
Spouse(s) Christiane Gerlach (1921–1929)

Richard Sorge (October 4, 1895 – November 7, 1944) was a Soviet military intelligence officer, active before and during the Second World War, working as an undercover German journalist in both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. His codename was "Ramsay" (Russian: Рамза́й).

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.

In mid-September 1941, he informed the Soviet command that Japan was not going to attack the Soviet Union in the near future, which allowed the command to transfer 18 divisions, 1,700 tanks, and over 1,500 aircraft from Siberia and the Far East to the Western Front against Nazi Germany during the most critical months of the Battle for Moscow; one of the turning points of the of World War II.

A month later Sorge was arrested in Japan on the counts of espionage. The German Abwehr legitimately denied he was an agent; USSR repudiated him and refused three offers to spare him through a prisoner exchange. He was tortured, confessed, tried, and hanged in November 1944. Two decades passed before he was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union in 1964.

Early life

House in Sabunchi (Azerbaijan) where Richard Sorge lived from 1895 till 1898
Sorge (left) and chemist Erich Correns during the First World War in 1915

Sorge was born in the settlement of Sabunchi, a suburb of Baku, Baku Governorate of the Russian Empire (modern Azerbaijan).[1][2] 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.[3] His father's lucrative contract expired a few years later, and the family moved back to Germany. In Sorge's own words,

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.[4]

The cosmopolitan Sorge household was "very different from the average bourgeois home in Berlin."[5]

Although Sorge considered Friedrich Adolf Sorge, an associate of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to be his grandfather, he was in fact his great-uncle.[6]

World War I started in August 1914; in October 1914 Sorge enlisted in the German Army. At age 18 he was posted to a field artillery battalion with the 3rd Guards Corps. 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.

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.[7] 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.

Soviet military intelligence agent

Sorge was recruited as an agent for Soviet intelligence. With the cover of a journalist, he was sent to various European countries to assess the possibility of communist revolutions.

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. 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 organized 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).[7] He remained with the Department for the rest of his life.

In 1929 Sorge went to the United Kingdom to study the labor movement there, the status of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the country's political and economic conditions. He was instructed to remain undercover and stay out of politics.

In November 1929, Sorge was sent to Germany. He was instructed to join the Nazi Party and not associate with any left-wing activists. As cover, he got a job with the agricultural newspaper Deutsche Getreide-Zeitung.[8]

China 1930

In 1930, Sorge was sent to Shanghai. For cover he worked as the editor of a German news service and for the Frankfurter Zeitung. He contacted another agent, Max Clausen. Sorge also met the German Soviet agent Ursula Kuczynski[9] and American journalist Agnes Smedley. Smedley, a well-known left-wing journalist, also worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung. She introduced Sorge to Hotsumi Ozaki of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun (a future Sorge recruit), and to Hanako Ishii, with whom he would become romantically involved.[10]

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.

Moscow 1933

Sorge returned to Moscow, where he wrote a book about Chinese agriculture. He also married Yekaterina Maximova ("Katya"), a woman he had met in China and brought back with him to Russia.

Japan 1933

GDR postage stamp commemorating Richard Sorge

In May 1933, the GRU decided to have Sorge organize an intelligence network in Japan. He was given the code name "Ramsay" ("Рамзай" (Ramzai, Ramzay). He first went to Berlin, to renew contacts in Germany, and obtain a new newspaper assignment in Japan as cover.

In Berlin, he insinuated himself into the Nazi Party and read Nazi propaganda, in particular Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Sorge attended so many beer halls with his new acquaintances that he gave up drinking so as not to say anything inappropriate. His abstinence from drinking did not make his Nazi companions suspicious. It was an example of his devotion to and absorption in his mission, as he was a heavy drinker. He later explained to Hede Massing, "That was the bravest thing I ever did. Never will I be able to drink enough to make up for this time."[11] Later, his drinking came to undermine his work.

While in Nazi Germany, he received commissions from two newspapers, the Berliner Börsen Zeitung and the Tägliche Rundschau, to report from Japan; also the Nazi theoretical journal Geopolitik. Later he was able to obtain work from the Frankfurter Zeitung. He went to Japan via the United States, passing through New York in August 1933.[12]

Sorge arrived in Yokohama on September 6, 1933. 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,[13] 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.

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 the prime minister Fumimaro Konoe. Ozaki copied secret documents for Sorge.

As he appeared to be an ardent Nazi, Sorge was welcome at the German Embassy. Ironically, Sorge may have been much safer spying for the Soviets in Japan during the late 1930s 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 ancestry. In fact, two of Sorge's earliest GRU handlers, Yan Karlovich Berzin and his successor, Artur Khristianovich Artuzov, were shot during the purges.[14]

Wartime intelligence supplied by the Sorge Ring

Sorge supplied Soviet intelligence with information about the Anti-Comintern Pact and the German-Japanese Pact. In 1941, through his Embassy contacts, he learned of Operation Barbarossa, the imminent Axis invasion of the USSR, and even the approximate date. Moscow received the report, but ultimately Joseph Stalin and other top leaders ignored Sorge's warnings, as well as those of other sources.[15]

It has been rumored that Sorge provided the exact date of "Barbarossa", but historian Gordon Prange in 1984 concluded that the closest Sorge came was 20 June 1941 and that Sorge himself never claimed to have discovered the correct date (22 June) in advance.[16] The date of 20 June was given to Sorge by Oberstleutnant (lieutenant-colonel) Erwin Scholl, the deputy military attaché at the German embassy.[17]

The Soviet press reported in 1964 that on June 15, 1941, Sorge had sent a radio dispatch saying that "The war will begin on June 22."[18] Prange, who did not have access to material released by the Russian authorities in the 1990s, did not accept the veracity of this report. Stalin was quoted as having ridiculed Sorge and his intelligence before "Barbarossa":

There's this bastard who's set up factories and brothels in Japan and even deigned to report the date of the German attack as 22 June. Are you suggesting I should believe him too?[19]

Sorge advised the Red Army on September 14, 1941, that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union until:

  1. Moscow was captured
  2. The Kwantung Army was three times the size of Soviet Far Eastern forces
  3. A civil war had started in Siberia.[20]

This information made possible the transfer of Soviet divisions from the Far East, although the presence of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria necessitated the Soviet Union's keeping a large number of troops on the eastern borders...[21]

Various writers have speculated that this information allowed the release of Siberian divisions for the Battle of Moscow, where the German Army suffered its first tactical defeat in the war. To this end, Sorge's information might have been the most important military intelligence work in World War II.

Another important item allegedly reported by Sorge may have affected the Battle of Stalingrad. Sorge reported that Japan would attack the Soviet Union from the East as soon as the German army captured any city on the Volga.[22]

Sorge's rival and opponent in Japan and east Asia was Ivar Lissner, an agent of the German Abwehr.[23]

Arrests and trials

As the war progressed, Sorge was in increasing danger, but he continued his service. His radio messages were enciphered with unbreakable one-time pads (always used by the Soviet intelligence agencies), and appeared as gibberish. However, due to the increasing number of these mystery messages, the Japanese began to suspect that an intelligence ring was operating. Sorge was also coming under increasing suspicion in Berlin. By 1941 the Nazi's had instructed Josef Albert Meisinger, the Gestapo resident at the German Embassy in Tokyo, to begin monitoring Sorge and his activities. The Kempeitai (Japanese secret police) intercepted many messages and began to close in. Ozaki was arrested on October 14, 1941 and immediately interrogated.

Sorge was arrested shortly thereafter on October 18, 1941, in Tokyo. The next day, a brief memo notified German ambassador Eugen Ott that Sorge had been arrested "on suspicion of espionage" together with Max Clausen. Ott was both surprised and outraged, and assumed it was a case of "Japanese espionage hysteria". He thought that Sorge had been discovered passing secret information on the Japan-US negotiations to the German embassy, and also that the arrest could be due to anti-German elements in the Japanese government. Nonetheless, he immediately sided with Japanese authorities to "investigate the incident fully".[24] It was not until a few months later that Japanese authorities announced that Sorge had in fact been indicted as a Soviet agent.[25]

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.[26]


Richard Sorge was hanged on November 7, 1944, at 10:20 a.m. Tokyo time in Sugamo Prison; Hotsumi Ozaki was hanged earlier in the same day. The Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge Sorge until 1964. It was argued that Sorge's biggest coup led to his undoing, because Stalin could not afford to let it become known that he had rejected Sorge's warning about the German attack in June 1941. However, nations seldom officially recognize their own undercover agents.[27]

Sorge was survived by his mother, then living in Germany, and he left his estate to Anna Clausen.[28] He was buried in the Sugamo Prison (Zhogaya) graveyard,[28] but his remains were later relocated to Tama Cemetery in Fuchū, Tokyo.

Posthumous recognition

Memorial plaque of Richard Sorge on the house in Sabunchi where Sorge lived from 1895 till 1898

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 prohibited in West Germany only two days after its release in 1955 and only released again after re-editing.[29]

In 1961 a movie called Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Sorge? (Who Are You, Mr. Sorge?) was produced in France in collaboration with West Germany, Italy and Japan. This movie was very popular in the Soviet Union as well. The part of Sorge was played by Thomas Holtzmann.

On 5 November 1964, 20 years after his death, the Soviet government awarded Sorge with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.[30] Sorge's widow Hanako Ishii received a Soviet and Russian pension until her death in July 2000 in Tokyo.[26]

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.[31] 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."[32]

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.

Sorge also appears in Osamu Tezuka's Adolf manga.

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).

The 2003 Japanese film Spy Sorge, directed by Masahiro Shinoda, details his exploits in Shanghai and Japan. In the film he is portrayed by Scottish actor Iain Glen.[33]

Comments about Sorge

  • "A devastating example of a brilliant success of espionage." – Douglas MacArthur, General of the Army
  • "His work was impeccable." – Kim Philby
  • "In my whole life, I have never met anyone as great as he was." – Mitsusada Yoshikawa, Chief Prosecutor in the Sorge trials who obtained Sorge's death sentence.
  • "Sorge was the man whom I regard as the most formidable spy in history." – Ian Fleming
  • "Richard Sorge was the best spy of all time." – Tom Clancy
  • "The spy who changed the world." – Lance Morrow
  • "Somehow, amidst the Bonds and Smiley's People, we have ignored the greatest of 20th century spy stories – that of Stalin's Sorge, whose exploits helped change history." – Carl Bernstein
  • "Richard Sorge's brilliant espionage work saved Stalin and the Soviet Union from defeat in the fall of 1941, probably prevented a Nazi victory in World War Two and thereby assured the dimensions of the world we live in today." – Larry Collins
  • "The spies in history who can say from their graves, the information I supplied to my masters, for better or worse, altered the history of our planet, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Richard Sorge was in that group." – Frederick Forsyth
  • "Stalin's James Bond." – Le Figaro

Cultural references

There are several fictional representation of Sorge's life:

  • The German Letzte Karte spielt der Tod by Hans Hellmut Kirst, published in English as The Last Card (New York: Pyramid Publications, Inc., 1967) and Death Plays the Last Card (London: Fontana, 1968).
  • The French L'Insensé by Morgan Sportes (Grasset, 2002) translated into Japanese as Sorge hametsu no fuga (Iwanami Shoten, 2005).
  • The 1997 novel Stepper by Australian Brian Castro.
  • The 2000 short story collection The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon.
  • The later chapters of Osamu Tezuka's manga Adolf.
  • The Japanese film Spy Sorge.


  1. Hero of the Soviet Union Richard Sorge
  2. Richard Sorge
  3. Deakin & Storry 1966, p. 23
  4. Partial Memoirs of Richard Sorge, Part 2, p. 30; quoted in part by Prange according to whom Sorge was 11 when the family moved (Prange 1984) and in full by Whymant according to whom Sorge was two years old at the time of the move (Whymant 2006, p. 11); Whymant refers to a "glimmering memory of this ambiance [in the southern Caucasus]" as staying with Sorge for the rest of his life which rather suggests that two years old is a somewhat low estimate of Sorge's age at the time of the move.
  5. Whymant 2006, p. 12
  6. Deakin & Storry 1966, pp. 23–24; quoted by Prange 1984
  7. 7.0 7.1 Prange 1984
  8. Deakin & Storry 1966, p. 63
  9. Richard C.S. Trahair. Encyclopedia of Cold War Espionage, Spies and Secret Operations. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004. ISBN 0-313-31955-3
  10. Former Soviet spy Sorge's girlfriend Ishii dies
  11. Hede Massing, This Deception (New York, 1951), p. 71; quoted by Prange 1984
  12. Whymant 2006, pp. 40–43
  13. His name is often spelt with an initial 'K' but "Clausen" appears on his driving licence and as his signature. Charles A. Willoughby, Shanghai Conspiracy (New York, 1952), photograph at p. 75; referred to by Prange 1984
  14. Bagley 2013, pp. 159–160
  16. Prange 1984, p. 347
  17. Obi Toshito, ed., Gendai-shi Shiryo, Zoruge Jiken (Materials on Modern History, The Sorge Incident) (Tokyo, 1962), Vol. I, p.274; quoted by Prange 1984
  18. I. Dementieva and N. Agayantz, "Richard Sorge, Soviet Intelligence Agent," Sovietskaya Rossiya, 6 September 1964; quoted by Prange 1984
  19. Simon Sebag Montefiore Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (London, 2003), p. 360; referred to in the Notes below as "Sebag Montefiore"
  20. Prange 1984, p. 407
  21. Mayevsky, Viktor, "Comrade Richard Sorge", Pravda, 4 September 1964; quoted by Prange 1984
  22. Whymant 2006, p. 206
  23. Juergen Corleis. Always on the Other Side: A Journalist's Journey from Hitler to Howard's End. Juergen Corleis. p. 59. ISBN 0-646-48994-1. Retrieved 23 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Toland, John (1970), The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945, Random House, p. 122, ISBN 0-394-44311-X<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Whymant 2006, p. 283
  26. 26.0 26.1 Sakaida, Henry; Christa Hook (2004). Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941–45. Osprey Publishing. p. 32. ISBN 1-84176-769-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Corkill, Edan, "Sorge's spy is brought in from the cold", Japan Times, 31 January 2010, p. 7.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Interview with Sorge's defence lawyer Sumitsugu Asanuma conducted on Prange's behalf by Ms. Chi Harada; quoted by Prange 1984
  29. Verrat an Deutschland at IKDB
  30. Heroes of the Soviet Union; Sorge, Richard (Russian)
  31. Mayevsky, Viktor, "Comrade Richard Sorge", Pravda, 4 September 1964, p. 4; quoted by Prange 1984
  32. Industrie-Warndienst, Bonn/Frankfurt/Main, Nr. 12 vom 21. April 1967, cit. nach Julius Mader: Hitlers Spionagegenerale sagen aus, 5. Aufl. 1973, S.9f


  • Bagley, Tennent (2013), Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief, New York: Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN 978-1-62636-065-5<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Deakin, F. W.; Storry, G. R. (1966), The case of Richard Sorge, London: Chatto & Windus<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>. An early account by two leading British historians of the time. It is informed by their differing perspectives, Deakin being an authority on 20th century European history and Storry an authority on 20th century Japan.
  • Prange, Gordon W.; Goldstein, Donald M.; Dillon, Katherine V. (1984), Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring, New York: McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-050677-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Whymant, Robert (1996), Stalin's Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring, London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, ISBN 1-86064-044-3<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Whymant, Robert (2006) [1996], Stalin's Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, ISBN 1-84511-310-1<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Johnson, Chalmers. An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring. Stanford University Press, 1964. (paperback, ISBN 0-8047-1766-4)
  • Kirst, Hans Helmut. 'Death Plays The Last Card': The Tense, Brilliant Novel of Richard Sorge—World War II's Most Daring Spy. Translated from the German by J. Maxwell Brownjohn. Collins Fontana paperback, 1968.
  • Meissner, Hans-Otto. The Man with Three Faces: Sorge, Russia's Master Spy. London: Pan # GP88, 1957, 1st Printing Mass Market Paperback.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas. (ed.) Patriots and Traitors, Sorge and Ozaki: A Japanese Cultural Casebook. MerwinAsia, 2009. (paperback, ISBN 978-1-878282-90-3). Contains several essays on the spy ring, a translation of selected letters Hotsumi Ozaki wrote in prison, and the translation of Junji Kinoshita's 1962 play A Japanese Called Otto.

External links