Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Richard Sorge - The Spy from Baku - 7 October 2020

Richard Sorge had one of the greatest impacts on the outcome of World War Two of any individual, yet most people have never heard of him. He was not a politician or a diplomat, he didn’t command troops, fly planes, captain battleships or even fire a gun, and he never fought in any of the battles. What he had was access to key inside information at critical times. He caused entire armies to move from one part of the world to another which saved the Soviet Union from disaster in 1941 in the bloody battles outside Moscow and enabled Stalin’s eventual victory in 1945, thereby reshaping modern Europe. He was a spy but also shared many of the fundamental traits of a high-class conman: personable, well dressed, amiable, well mannered, good looking, attractive to women and utterly without conscious or scruples. His penetration of the German embassy in Tokyo also made him the most highly placed Soviet agent in the world at the time.


Sorge (“Sor-gei”) was born in Tsarist Russia of a German father and a Russian mother. He grew up in Berlin in comfortable middle-class surroundings. He became possibly the only person in history to have been a card-carrying member of both the German Nazi Party and the Soviet Communist Party at the same time. The espionage ring he created and ran for nine years in Tokyo, when no Russian agent had ever succeeded in settling in Tokyo, was the greatest spy ring of the age. He had previously run another spy ring in Shanghai, then the centre of espionage in China if not in Asia, which he did so well his employer, Red Army Intelligence, sent him on an even tougher assignment, one no others had succeeded in achieving. At one time he had the undivided attention of the top spymasters in both Moscow and Berlin. His trusted position at the heart of the German embassy in Japan was to become the core of one of the most successful infiltrations of an enemy institution in the history of espionage.


Sorge’s operations had a direct bearing on the fate of nations and the course of the entire war but his information was so good he often wasn’t believed. The Russians thought him a double agent for the Germans. The Germans had their suspicions he was a communist working for the Russians, and the Japanese thought he was spy but for years couldn’t prove who for or even find evidence to arrest him. It was ironic that while German intelligence appreciated Sorge as an exceptionally perceptive observer of Japan, the Russians scorned him despite learning some of the deepest secrets of German-Japanese relations.


It is said ‘a good spy can decide the outcome of a battle of the course of crucial negotiations but only if they are believed’. Stalin thought Sorge a womanising son of an oil tycoon; morally bankrupt and politically suspect and his information gathered as he put it; “in women’s beds” of little use. Some of Sorge’s messages in the Russian military archives bear the initials of Stalin, Molotov, Beria and the one-time army chief Marshal Voroshilov. Stalin had a mob boss-like predilection for eliminating underlings whom he despised or feared and possessed an abnormal suspicion. He once wrote on an intelligence briefing about Sorge calling him a “shit” though there were usually worse things Stalin wrote about people. That and Sorge’s previous affiliation to the Comintern (short for Communist International), whose leadership Stalin had purged (killings led by Beria and Voroshilov) resulted in Sorge’s warnings of imminent invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 gleaned from high-ranking German military sources in Tokyo, being dismissed by Stalin as fanciful.

Richard Sorge in uniform


I first heard mention of a master Soviet spy in Japan when watching the 26-part TV series ‘The World at War’ which chronicled the events of World War Two. Narrated by none other than Sir Laurence Olivier it was at the time, the most expensive factual series ever made. Though he wasn’t mentioned by name, Olivier said something about “Stalin’s top spy in Tokyo’. I was intrigued who this person was and wanted to know more. Here and there I’d found snippets of information. Research online provided a name. Much later I came across a Russian television series by Sergei Ginzburg, one of many made about Sorge, now somewhat of a cult figure. Then came Owen Matthew’s biography, ‘An Impeccable Spy’.


His true value as a spy Matthews said, was as an observer of the epochal diplomatic game that was unfolding at the time between Germany and Japan with the German ambassador as a major player and Sorge his confidant. The spy network Sorge built in pre-war Tokyo put him one degree of separation form the highest echelons of power in Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Mice, it is said of spies: the m stands for money, the i for ideology, the c for coercion, and the e stands for egotism. Sorge started with ideology, but later became disillusioned with communism. He certainly was egotistical and manipulative but not physically forceful, and largely seemed disinterested in money but was thought to have secret bank accounts in Shanghai ready for flight.


The key to Sorge’s success was he apparently seldom stole secrets – he traded them – boosting the standing of those around him in the process. His unknowing accomplice in this was the German ambassador himself, General Eugen Ott, a friend and negotiator of the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Japan and Italy, whose wife Sorge also seduced. The intelligence Sorge gathered allowed Moscow to predict the greatest question that faced Russia in the east for a decade in the lead-up to war with Germany and beyond; after Manchuria, would Japan turn north and invade the sparsely populated and scantily defended Far Eastern territories of the Soviet Union, or south into China?


Sorge survived undetected as a spymaster in Tokyo during a time of unprecedented paranoia and suffocating surveillance in Japan about foreigners, especially spies. He stole the closest secrets of Germany and Japan while hiding in plain sight posing as a foreign correspondent and using his real name. All this despite the fact he had never undergone any specialist training in espionage. His cover as a journalist was unsurprising as spies and journalists were fated to go through life together, and it was sometimes hard to tell one from the other. As spy author Alan Furst put it, ‘Their jobs weren’t all that different; they talked to politicians, developed sources in government bureaux, and dug around for secrets. Sometimes they talked, and traded with, one another. And, now and again, a journalist worked directly for the secret service.’


Sorge was a bad man who became a great spy. He was described as handsome and brooding. Women were fascinated by him and men envied him, though tried not to show it. An idealistic communist and cynical liar, a drunk and a womanizer, addicted to risk, frequenter of brothels and casinos, his magic facility for putting people at ease was his greatest skill. He had a talent also for befriending those who could be most dangerous to him – he made a drinking companion out of the Gestapo officer sent to investigate him, later pronouncing Sorge politically "reliable". The German embassy gave him an office inside the compound, he travelled with German diplomatic passes and had access to all intelligence coming into the embassy bar that meant for the ambassador’s eyes only. He successfully penetrated the tight-knit German community in Tokyo even being asked to head the local branch of the Nazi Party.

Baku - The Black City


He was also a contradiction. Though an extrovert and exhibitionist he kept his inner self a closely guarded secret. He had many friends but none he could confide in. He had many intimate relationships but complained of loneliness. Sorge, like Kim Philby, another communist convert, was a textbook example of the rare species, Homo Undercovericus – those who find the dull unclassified lives the rest of us lead simply not worth living. He had a form of self-destructive charisma. He crashed cars and motorbikes riding about Tokyo on a Zündapp motorcycle—one of the heaviest and most powerful machines of its day—at high speed, usually reckless and often drunk. One night he rode into a wall fracturing his skull and breaking an already badly injured leg. Barely conscious he had to usher the medical staff from the hospital room in order to pass a large sum of cash and many microfilms with classified documents to the spy ring’s radio man.


Sorge’s spy ring had connections to the top Japanese policy-makers and network in the Japanese military industrial complex. He went on tours of military facilities in Manchuria with the German ambassador, as his personal friend and advisor. Ott was so impressed by Sorge’s report of the trip he sent it to the German High Command in Berlin. Until 1941, the Wehrmacht’s main source on Asia’s economics was Sorge. Sorge then seduced Ott’s wife, the 6-foot Helma, once a communist. Even when Ott found out about the affair, they remained friends.


His chief Japanese contact later became one of the authors of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan’s imperialistic blueprint for much of Asia, and worked for the South Manchuria Railroad, or Mantetsu, effectively a state within a state and central to every aspect of the economic, cultural, political and by extension, military life in the vast area of Japanese Manchuria. Through this key contact, who later worked on a kind of shadow cabinet to the premier Prince Konoe, Sorge was able to successfully determine Japan would not attack Russia, so Stalin was able to transfer the winter-equipped Siberian divisions stationed near China to defend the gates of Moscow and beat back the Wehrmacht.


Sorge was born in 1904 in Baku. It was then and still is, an oil boom town, the largest city in the world below sea level and now the showy capital of Azerbaijan. His father Wilhelm, a Saxon, was an oil engineer, who had worked in Pennsylvania but moved to Baku when hired by the Caucasian Oil company, a subsidiary of Branoble owned by the Nobel brothers. Baku was then Imperial Russia’s wealthiest, most corrupt and most violent city. It had been transformed into an oil boom city by the Nobels, credited with starting Russia’s oil industry. Today Alfred is the most famous, but older brother Ludvig was the wealthiest. He started with a distillery, then moved in arms manufacture, then oil. Baku once produced half the world’s oil supply. The Nobels created a vast fortune in Russia, which was later confiscated by the Bolsheviks.


Wilhelm married a Russian, Nina. They had 10 children, five of whom died in infancy. The Sorge’s lived in middle-class surroundings in the affluent Sabunchi suburb of Baku. Their house still stands today, now a dilapidated slum home to refugees. Life for many others however wasn’t nearly as comfortable. Baku’s back streets were covered in rubbish, disembowelled dogs and faeces. Baku, the “Black City”, seeped oil creating a poisonous atmosphere and the city literally choked on its own effluent. Stalin, once a resident and recently released from prison, said Baku was a city of debauchery, despotism and extravagance for the wealthy. When Sorge was four, the family moved to Berlin where his father worked in a bank. He died when Sorge was 16 leaving all his children comfortable private incomes.

Sailors at Kiel - in mutiny mode


At the outbreak of World War One Sorge enlisted as a private soldier in the German Imperial Army. His romance of war was soon shattered by going ‘over the top’ in Belgium against British regulars where most of his comrades with just a few week's basic training were mown down in scenes reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front, a brutal experience familiar to an entire generation. Two of his brothers were killed in the war. Later he fought in Galicia against the Russians, and in East Prussia. He was wounded more than once losing fingers, and his legs were shattered by shrapnel leaving him with a lifelong limp. The war caused in him a violent political rebirth. In the trenches he was exposed to different political ideas; socialism and communism, espoused by workers from across Germany and beyond, a kind of awakening. In hospital convalescing, he read Marx, introduced to him by a nurse. News of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia cemented his growing political convictions. Having gone to war as a right-wing nationalist he came out as a communist.


Following discharge from the army he enrolled in the economic faculty of Berlin University – he later completed a PhD, so it was Dr Sorge. After the war he spent time in Kiel, once part of the Holy Roman Empire (neither holy, nor Roman, nor much of an empire) and then Denmark until its annexation by Prussia and expelled from the Hanseatice League for harbouring pirates. Kiel was a hotbed of socialism and epicenter of Germany’s brewing revolution. It was where sailors of the German High Seas Fleet mutinied in 1918, an event leading to establishment of the Weimar Republic. He spent time at political rallies often engaged in public speaking. He was by accounts, a charismatic convincing speaker who honed his skills addressing audiences of revolutionary sailors, and brawled and boozed with the best of them, and tasted jail during the Spartacist Revolution.


He moved to Hamburg, also a great port city and near to Kiel, to study for a doctorate in political science. There he began writing for a communist newspaper, his career and later cover as a journalist had begun. Sorge met Christiane, wife of Kurt Gerlach, a wealthy communist. Later he moved to Aachen University and when living in the steel town of Solingen south of the Ruhr, married Christiane. Spies and serial seducers it seems, go hand in hand. He then worked as a coalminer in order to be literally, an underground agitator for the German Communist Party (the KPD). He and Christiane then moved to Frankfurt to work at the Institute of Social Research newly formed by none less than Christiane’s former husband, Kurt. Sorge’s home with Christiane became a lively leftist salon. One of their many visitors was Hede Massing (codename “Redhead” she eventually defected and died in New York in 1981), an Austrian actress, communist and Soviet intelligence operative between the KDP in Berlin and the local party organisation in Frankfurt. Sorge’s international connections were about to begin.


To be continued ...

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