Moscow, Soviet Union October 19, 1941

On this date in 1941, the day the official “state of siege” was declared in the Soviet capi­tal of Mos­cow, Red Army forces from the Soviet Far East and Sibe­ria began arriving on the Rus­sian Front. Soviet dicta­tor Joseph Stalin was con­vinced that evac­u­ating most of his troops from the Soviet-Japa­nese bor­der on the Chinese main­land repre­sented little risk owing, first, to a five-year neu­trality, or non­aggres­sion, pact the two coun­tries had con­cluded six months earlier and, secondly and more impor­tantly for its effect on reversing German fortunes in the winter of 1941, to infor­mation from a Tokyo-based spy, Richard Sorge.

The Russian-born Sorge, whose cover was that of a Nazi reporter for the German news­paper Frank­furter Allge­meine among others, was the Soviet infor­mant who had cor­rectly pre­dicted the date of Germany’s inva­sion of the Soviet Union four months earlier (Opera­tion Barba­rossa) and the Japa­nese attack on Pearl Harbor. To his ever­lasting dis­credit, Stalin stub­bornly refused to believe warnings from Sorge, whom the Soviet leader intensely dis­liked and belittled, and from other sources, including British, U.S., and Swedish diplo­matic sources as well as his own mili­tary, fore­telling the approx­i­mate date of Adolf Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. In part Stalin believed the warnings to be a ploy by agents pro­vo­ca­teurs to dis­rupt the German-Soviet Non­aggres­sion Pact of August 1939, or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact named after the countries’ foreign minis­ters, which pact, wish­ful thinking on Stalin’s part, redirected Hitler’s aggres­sive instincts toward the Western demo­cracies instead of his own totali­tarian state. (Incred­ibly a report landed on Stalin’s desk as early as Decem­ber 29, 1940—this from none other than the Soviet ambas­sador in Berlin who credited a Soviet agent in the German foreign office with ferreting out Fuehrer Direc­tive No. 21, Hitler’s Barba­rossa Direc­tive eleven days earlier—that the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) had been ordered to prepare for war with the Soviet Union.)

Codenamed “Ramsay,” Richard Sorge (1895–1944) was one of the best Soviet intel­li­gence offi­cers of World War II, and he con­tinued to feed Moscow infor­ma­tion from his base in Tokyo, where the hard-drinking news­paper­man had entrées in Japa­nese and German diplo­matic circles, until arrested on Octo­ber 18, 1941, by Japan’s Tokko, the country’s so-called Thought Police. (This secret police force, which was respon­si­ble for tracking down spies and sub­ver­sives, is often con­fused with the 10,000‑man impe­rial secu­rity police force, or Kem­peitai, equi­va­lent to the German Gestapo.) Until his con­fes­sion under torture, Sorge was assumed by the Japa­nese to be a German spy. (The Soviets did not offi­cially acknow­ledge Sorge was on their pay­roll until 1964.) Sorge was hanged on Novem­ber 7, 1944, along with his Japa­nese accom­plice and fellow Com­mu­nist, Hotsumi Ozaki, an advisor to Japan’s prime minis­ter, in Sugamo Prison outside Tokyo. After the war Sugamo Prison was the exe­cu­tion site of seven Japa­nese war crimi­nals sen­tenced to death by the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bu­nal for the Far East, among them Gen. Hideki Tōjō, Japan’s prime minister during most of World War II (1941–1944).

Sorge’s seminal role in the Battle of Moscow (Octo­ber 2, 1941, to Janu­ary 7, 1942) and perhaps in the Battle of Stalin­grad (Septem­ber 1942 to Febru­ary 1943), during which the Germans suffered stra­tegic defeats on their East­ern Front, is today memo­ri­alized in a Moscow park. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953 and two decades after Sorge’s exe­cu­tion did the Presi­dium of the Supreme Soviet (the highest exec­u­tive body of the land) move to confer the nation’s highest deco­ra­tion on its master spy: the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union. Several years later, in 1970, the former Soviet satel­lite in Eastern Germany, the German Demo­cra­tic Republic, established a memorial garden named for Sorge in Dresden’s Altstadt (Old City).

Robert Whymant’s book Stalin’s Spy: Richard Sorge and the Tokyo Espionage Ring is among a num­ber of books recounting the lives and espio­nage con­ducted by World War II spies. Great Britain had a stable of spies working for the Special Opera­tions Execu­tive (SOE), many in German-occupied France assisting the French Resis­tance. A fine British author, Ben Mac­intrye, has written a small book­shelf on spies and double agents. Among the books I’ve read of his are best-selling spy thriller Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espio­nage, Love, and Betrayal about Eddie Chap­man, a British petty crimi­nal, jail bird, womanizer, traitor, and MI5 double agent all rolled up in one; Operation Mince­meat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, the suc­cess­ful decep­tion that con­vinced the Nazis into thinking that Allied forces were planning to attack south­ern Europe by way of Greece or Sar­di­nia instead of Sicily (Oper­a­tion Husky), as the Nazis had assumed; and finally Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which describes Britain’s achieve­ment in turning Ger­man spies into double agents and tricking the Nazis into believing that the D-Day landings would come in Calais, France, rather than in Nor­mandy. Any or all of them will keep you enthralled into the wee morning hours as they did me.—Norm Haskett

Spymaster Richard Sorge: Soviet Eyes and Ears in Prewar Japan

Richard Sorge, Soviet spy, 1940Richard Sorge memorial, Moscow park

Left: Family photograph of Richard Sorge from 1940. Sorge was born in 1895 near Baku, Azer­ba­ijan (then part of Russia), to a German mining engi­neer and a Russian mother. Back in Berlin where he grew up, Sorge served in the German Army during World War I (he was severely wounded), earned a PhD in poli­tical science, and joined the German Com­mu­nist Party in 1919. His poli­tical views led him to leave Ger­many for the Soviet Union, where he became a junior agent in Moscow for the Comin­tern, an inter­na­tional com­munist organi­za­tion. In 1929 Sorge was recruited by the head of Soviet mili­tary intel­li­gence (GRU) and worked for that depart­ment for the rest of his life. In May 1933 the depart­ment asked Sorge to orga­nize a spy net­work in Japan, the same year Sorge “joined” the Nazi Party. Sorge recruited fellow jour­nalist and China-expert Hotsumi Ozaki, whom Japa­nese Prime Minister Fumi­maro Konoe invited to join a think tank, thereby allowing Ozame to learn about and influence important policy decisions.

Right: A memorial in a Moscow park reminds visitors of Sorge’s contri­bu­tions as a Soviet intel­li­gence opera­tive in Japan and China (Shang­hai), where he col­lected infor­ma­tion about Japa­nese and German plans in the lead-up to World War II. Many streets in Russia are named after Sorge. British spy and James Bond author Ian Fleming called Sorge “the man whom I regard as the most formid­able spy in his­tory.” Tom Clancy, Amer­i­can author of numerous spy novels, called Sorge “the best spy of all time.” And best-selling spy novelist John Le Carré, who worked for MI5 and MI6, Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intel­ligence Service, respectively, called Sorge “the spy to end spies.”

Former Richard Sorge memorial, Dresden, GermanyRichard Sorge bust, Dresden, Germany

Above: In 1970 the Communist government of East Germany accorded the half-German, half-Russian anti-fascist hero with an impres­sive memo­rial gar­den in Dresden. First in the list of attri­bu­tions under Sorge’s name (right photo) is the word “Kommunist.” Neither the memorial garden nor the adjacent street named after him exists any longer after German reunification in 1990.

Battle of Moscow, October 1941 to January 1942, Germany’s First Defeat (You may want to mute the sound)