Meet Richard Sorge: The German Who Spied for Stalin

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-1003-020 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
August 25, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Richard SorgeEspionageCommunismSoviet UnionWorld War II

Meet Richard Sorge: The German Who Spied for Stalin

He had a very impactful career.

Key Point: The Soviets were warned of Hitler's invasion by Sorge and the spy would also provide them with key inelligence on Imperial Japan. He was a sucessful agent, but he was caught in the end and hung.

The Siberians are coming!” It was a cry that spread terror through the ranks of the German Wehrmacht in the winter of 1941. Since June 22, the Red Army had lost millions of dead, wounded, and captured soldiers while the Wehrmacht had advanced to the very gates of Moscow itself.

Now, however, new armies seemed to be springing out of the Russian soil as if by magic as the Germans prepared their final thrust toward the Soviet capital. The ever-distrustful Joseph Stalin had primarily put his faith in the word of one man, and had ordered division after division of his armies in the Far East to be transported as quickly as possible to the west to blunt the German advance. That man’s name was Richard Sorge.

One of the Great Espionage Masterminds of the 20th Century

The story of Richard Sorge, one of the great espionage masterminds of the Soviet Intelligence Service, began on October 4, 1895, in Adjukent, a small village near Baku in what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan. Sorge was the youngest of nine children in a German-Russian household. His father, Adolf, was a German petroleum engineer who cut an imposing figure with his bearded face and piercing eyes. Mother Nina was a pretty Russian woman from whom Richard inherited his Slavic features of high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes.

Sorge’s home life in Imperial Russia lasted for seven years until his father’s contract expired. The family then packed up and moved to the Lichterfelde section of Berlin. Coming from an upper-middle-class family, Richard attended a Berlin school at which he learned the basics required of all German boys of social standing. He excelled in many courses, such as history and political science, but tended to disregard any subject that did not interest him.

In 1911, Adolf Sorge died, leaving his family with enough money to continue living quite well. For the next three years, Richard continued his education, growing somewhat bored with his studies. Like many upper-middle-class teens in the early 20th century, he tended to find that many things in life had little or no purpose. All that changed with the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Within weeks, the Fatherland was at war.

The enthusiasm with which Europe went to war stirred the patriotic sense of the continent’s youth, and Sorge was no exception. Enlisting in the Kaiser’s army, he was sent to Belgium after a mere six weeks of training. The hell of the trenches soon extinguished the patriotic flame that had brought Sorge from Berlin to the miserable life that was the Western Front. Knee deep in mud and shivering in the cold, damp air of late fall, he began to question the validity of the war.

Wounded Near Ypres in World War I

Sorge also met a different class of people—men he would never have spent time with in Berlin society. Some were Socialists and others were radical leftists. As they talked about their own families and the persecution of the working class, Sorge began a slow transformation that would eventually lead him to his position of master spy for the Soviet Union.

In 1915, Sorge was wounded during the bloody fighting near Ypres in Belgium. He was sent home on convalescent leave but soon volunteered to return to the front. This time he was sent east, to the land of his birth. He arrived in Russia just in time to take part in an offensive that was tearing the heart out of the Russian Army. As the Germans advanced, Sorge saw the complete devastation that had been visited upon both the countryside and the people. Once again, he felt anxiety about the war. Here he was, fighting for his father’s country while destroying his mother’s.

The slaughter on the Eastern Front continued into 1916. Sorge was wounded twice that year, and his second wound sent him to a field hospital in Königsberg. It was there that he finally received his political awakening at the hands of a radical Socialist doctor and his daughter, a nurse. Under their tutelage, he became filled with revolutionary zeal. They persuaded the wounded soldier to pursue his studies, which he could do while on convalescent leave. Eagerly delving into history, economics, and philosophy, he became convinced that the war had no meaning. As the German economy began collapsing around him, he also decided that capitalism was the bane of the people. The loss of two brothers at the front only served to strengthen those convictions.

The Bolshevik Revolution & the German Communist Party

While Sorge was studying at Berlin University, the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the Russian government. The upheaval of society in his native land appealed to his newly found revolutionary spirit and, after being discharged from the army in 1918, he made his way to Kiel with the idea of spreading the Marxist ideology. Joining the Independent Social Democratic Party, he soon became an accomplished agitator as well as an instructor of Marxism.

Sorge became a member of the German Communist Party in 1919, while he was earning a Ph.D. in political science in Hamburg. His journalistic talents, which would provide him with a cover in the future, were honed while he served as an adviser to the Communist Party newspaper in the city. After a job in Aachen as assistant to Communist professor Dr. Karl Gerlach, Sorge decided to spread the revolutionary message by working in the coal mines of the Rhineland. The venture was short lived, however, after authorities discovered the young agitator.

In early 1921, Sorge was a political editorial writer for a communist newspaper in the Ruhr. The Communist Party at that time was under close scrutiny from government officials, and Sorge became an important liaison, carrying messages between Berlin and the party in Frankfurt am Main. Between his comings and goings, he also managed to find time to marry Christiane Gerlach, the former wife of his boss in Aachen.

April 1924 found Sorge assigned as a bodyguard for Soviet delegates who were attending a communist convention in Frankfurt. It was another turning point in his life. The position put him in contact with several prominent Russian communists who were impressed with his zeal for the movement, as well as his obvious intelligence and breeding. In fact, they were so impressed with the 29-year-old that they “suggested” he come to Moscow—a move that neither Sorge nor the German Communist Party dared refuse.

Arriving in the Soviet capital in late 1924, Sorge was charged with setting up an intelligence network. In 1925, he joined the Soviet Communist Party and also became a Soviet citizen, a fact that was never reported to German authorities. He therefore retained his German passport, which would be of great benefit to him in the future.

Immersing Himself in the World of Espionage

Life in Moscow was good for Sorge, but it was bad for his marriage. In addition to helping expand the Comintern Intelligence Division, he had time to write two books and to hone his skills in other languages, particularly English and Russian. On the dark side, his constant drinking and womanizing made life unbearable for Christiane, who finally left him in the fall of 1926. Returning to Germany, she eventually emigrated to the United States.

With Christiane gone, Sorge immersed himself in the world of espionage. It became his passion, but he realized that the one true weapon needed for success in the game was absolute secrecy. By 1929, he felt that he was becoming too conspicuous for his own good. After meeting with his superiors, he was given approval to sever his ties with the Comintern and with any of the communist cells that he knew. Only a few chosen men were privy to the reason for the break.

Sorge’s next step was to join the Secret Department of the Soviet Communist Party Central Executive Committee. His superiors then arranged an introduction to the head of the Fourth Department (Red Army Intelligence), General I.A. Berzin. Seeing Sorge’s potential, Berzin discussed possible assignments with him, and after narrowing his choices, Sorge decided that China would be the ideal spot for him to ply his trade. Berzin heartily agreed.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1929, Sorge prepared for his mission with the utmost concentration. A crucial aspect of the operation was his cover story. Since he was still a citizen of Germany as far as German officials were concerned, he traveled to Berlin and got a job as a writer for the Soziologesche Magazin. His next stop was Marseilles, where he boarded a ship for a trip halfway around the world. The long voyage finally ended when the ship docked in January 1930. Sorge was now in Shanghai, where he would start to organize a spy ring in the city for the Red Army.