On the day of the USSR’s October Revolution holiday in 1944, Stalin’s greatest spies were hanged in Japan.
Renowned among espionage aficionados for supposedly forewarning Moscow of the exact date of Germany’s planned surprise attack in 1941, Richard Sorge‘s work in the pregnant years leading up to World War II produced multiple intelligence coups and could lay claim to the uncommon distinction of having materially affected the course of the war.
His signal achievement was establishing, as a foreigner in a highly xenophobic Japan, a spy ring that for years penetrated the highest levels of the Japanese government and the German embassy, giving Moscow an inside look at Axis planning.
Working under the cover of journalism in the German expat community — he had grown up in a mixed German-Russian household in Berlin and won the Iron Cross for his service in the Kaiser’s army in World War I before embracing communism — Sorge struck Hitler from half a world away. His access to the German embassy was untrammeled — indeed, he had an affair with the ambassador’s wife. His lead Japanese collaborator Hotsumi Ozaki was a major public intellectual similarly privy to sensitive information through his contacts.
The two, along with several other Japanese and foreign collaborators, produced a steady diet of top-shelf intelligence, including the (ignored) forecast of Operation Barbarossa. But the ring’s most important coup — arguably a decisive one in the history of the war as a whole — was to inform Moscow in September 1941 that Japan did not intend to attack the Russian Far East. Relieved of the nightmare prospect of a two-front war, Stalin transfered desperately needed Siberian divisions to help throw back the German advance on Moscow.
Japan by 1941 was a dangerous place to operate, however, and the nerve-rattling work — and the alcoholism to which it contributed — were taking its toll on the master spy just as the authorities were closing in. Sorge and his ring were arrested in October 1941.
Sorge’s decisive communique regarding Japanese intentions in the East had not yet borne its fruit. The war had nearly four years yet to run, and Sorge would languish in prison for most of them — long enough to leave fellow detainees with recollections of the captured operative jubilant at Red Army victories. Soviet tanks were at Germany’s doorstep by the time the two went to the gallows, one after the other, with the few minutes’ notice still customary for Japanese hangings to this day.
The spies in history who can say from their graves, the infomation 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.
Sorge’s personal role in the crucible of world-shaping politics have proven a compelling topic for biographers. Among the notable works:
- Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Ring
- Stalin’s Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring
- An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring
- The Case of Richard Sorge
The espionage ring’s operations were also the subject of a recent multilingual Japanese epic, Spy Sorge:
Part of the Themed Set: Spies.