The Sorge Spy Ring

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2004

17 Pages, Grade: B


Sakigun! ( The Red Army)

Kokusai Kyosanto! (The International Communist Party)

Soviet Kyosanto! (The Soviet Communist Party)

Richard Sorge repeated his last words three times and, according to the Tokko’s official witness to the execution, spoke clearly and with conviction, lacking any show-off in his manner. He then snapped to attention, his executioners recognized the sure moment, and the trap was sprung.[1]

Throughout history, intelligence about adversaries has affected the outcome of conflicts. Leaders’ decisions are, amongst many other factors, at least affected by, and more often dependent on, the information that they have access to. In this paper, it will be investigated under which circumstances and to what extent spy activity affected the outcome of Russia’s defense against the German invasion during World War Two. Situations will be explored when Stalin was provided with excellent and precise information but did not use it, investigating what caused him to ignore it. Equally, the battle of Moscow will be looked at more closely to show how immensely valuable spies can be if actually listened to. This essay will focus on Dr. Richard Sorge and the members of his Tokyo Spy Ring, arguably one of the most effective groups of the Second World War, second only to Werther and the Red Orchestra. Sorge’s spy ring will be assessed in detail, aimed both to show how they were able to build up and conduct their operations in the face of considerable counterintelligence, investigating the most important members’ backgrounds to help understand their motives and convictions and finally determining what factors contributed to their identification and arrest.

Richard Sorge was the head of a spy ring for the Soviet Union from the time he arrived in Shanghai 1930 until his arrest by the Japanese Secret Service in 1941. In order to successfully operate for eleven years in a country as distrustful of foreigners and manically spy-conscious as Japan requires extraordinary talent, and that Richard Sorge doubtlessly possessed.

Born 1895 in Baku, Azerbaijan, to a German father and Russian mother, he followed his family to Germany in 1906. They were financially well off, and Sorge went through the normal academic curriculum. Immediately after the outbreak of World War One, he volunteered and joined the army.[2] Already disillusioned with Germany’s war aims, his first exposure to Communist doctrine occurred at a field hospital in Königsberg 1916 after being wounded for the third time. The doctor and nurse aiding his long recovery happened to be both radical socialists, and provided the bed-bound Sorge with political and economic literature. He left the hospital “an apostle of the revolutionary labor movement”[3], joining the revolutionary Independent Social Democratic Party at Kiel University in 1918, recruiting and instructing sailors and dock workers in socialism and Marxist dogma. 1919, he changed location to Hamburg to pursue his Ph. D. in political science, rapidly advancing to the post of training chief and adviser to the Hamburg chapter of the German Communist Party, which by then had absorbed the Independent Social Democratic Party. Propaganda activities got him expelled from the Rhineland after he moved there to work in the coal mines, and the authorities almost immediately asked him to leave when he shifted his attentions to Holland. Further stations included Berlin and Frankfurt, where he made the acquaintance of high-ranking Comintern members, who were so impressed with him that they invited him to Moscow, where he arrived in 1924.[4]

Once in Moscow, Sorge changed his membership to the Soviet Communist party and obtained Soviet citizenship, but kept his German passport and did not inform his former home country’s authorities about the proceedings. Free of ties after separating from his wife in 1926, Sorge took his work for the Comintern’s Intelligence division, which he had assisted in expanding, one step further and became involved in espionage. This involved traveling all over Europe, where he gathered information about the countries’ Communist parties as well as the state of their economic, political and military affairs. In 1929, his superiors accepted his request to be relieved from all political work for the Comintern to become fully engaged in political espionage and made him a member of the Secret Department of the Soviet Communist Party Central Executive Committee. Contact was established with General Berzin, chief of the Intelligence Department of the Soviet Army, and in response to Sorge's wishes, he was soon on his first mission, establishing and operating a Red Army spy network in Shanghai. He was successful, creating, testing and improving the “ring” system he would later use in Tokyo. It was in Shanghai that he met and recruited Ozaki, the man who would later be private secretary to Prime minister Count Konoye and making himself known to the Forth Department.[5]

Having completed his mission, he returned to Moscow in 1933, only to be briefed on his next operation: establishing a spy network on Japanese soil with the tentative aim of gathering intelligence on Japan’s future policy towards the Soviet Union. His cover was to be a reporter from Germany, so in order to acquire credentials and an endorsement of a reputable newspaper, he traveled to Berlin in 1933, passing the border without difficulty despite his known reputation for communist activities. Even more astonishing, when he applied for membership in the Nazi party, which was required for newspaper correspondents, the Gestapo’s’ background check did not detect any of his considerable and long Communist service in Germany. Prange quotes Hede Massing, who confirmed that there was a Soviet Agent in the Gestapo who had been able to temporarily remove all derogatory evidence from the file on Sorge.[6] Hence, he collected letters of recommendation from the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik[7] and a contract from the Tägliche Rundschau[8] with considerable ease. What turned out to be most important was a personal letter from the Tägliche Rundschau’s editor in chief commending him to Lieutenant Colonel Eugen Ott, a liaison officer on exchange with the Japanese artillery, requesting the latter to trust Sorge “in everything; that is, politically, personally and otherwise.”[9]

Having already built up a friendship with Ott, who became military attaché in Tokyo in 1934, the circumstances surrounding his complete infiltration of the German embassy were bizarre. In February 1936, a group of Japanese officers launched a coup d’etat, using their force of 1500 men to occupy the most vital government buildings of the city without giving a reason for their actions. The German embassy was confused and under pressure to explain the “Tokyo Incident”, thus gladly accepting his help in gathering information. From then on, he was the man to be asked for his opinion on a wide range of political issues and even given an office in the embassy. The cream on the already very nice-looking cake was the appointment of Ott to the post of German ambassador to Japan in 1939, Sorge moving in with him as his press attaché. From then on, the two men breakfasted every morning, sighted and answered messages together and shared opinions about everything the ambassador had learned from the Japanese foreign office. Even Tokyo’s head of the Gestapo, Colonel Meisinger (who was later to become “the Beast of Warsaw”-almost executed because even the Nazi’s were disgusted with his cruelty) came to trust Sorge. Toledano quotes him as shouting “Sorge is the only man in the German Embassy I really trust!” upon hearing of his arrest.[10] As a result of this trust, Sorge would be sent to Manila and Hong Kong under diplomatic status as a courier for important Embassy documents, while at the same time carrying materials to be delivered to Moscow (and microfilm copies of the confidential material he was carrying for Meisinger).[11] He improved the aforementioned ring system that had proved its worth in Shanghai insofar as the 16 people directly connected with Sorge’s operations became a series of ring systems. Apart from rare occasions, only the key person of each ring would be in direct contact with him to receive instructions and deliver information.[12] Prange sums it up nicely when he writes that Sorge had disarmed suspicion in one of the cleverest ways possible, by developing a reputation as being bohemian, very receptive to feminine charm and more than willing to partake in drinking heavily. Even anti-Nazi comments that would have gotten everybody else in trouble were laughed off, after all, it was just Sorge, who liked to be different and controversial. He had succeeded in making himself a character in both his social and professional circles.[13] Consequently, the Sorge Spy Ring became one of the Soviet unions’ major espionage operations.


[1] Interview with Yuda, (conducted by Ms. Chi Harada on Prange’s behalf, January 18,1965), quoted in: Gordon W. Prange, Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring, ( McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1984), p. 510

[2] Prange, Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring, ( McGraw-Hill, New York, 1984), pp. 8, 9

[3] Richard Sorge, Prison Memoir, (Iwanami Gendai Bunko, Tokyo, 2003), Part II, p. 30

[4] Target Tokyo, pp. 12-14

[5] Target Tokyo, pp. 14-28

[6] ibid, p. 37

[7] Journal for Geopolitics

[8] Daily Observer

[9] Target Tokyo, p. 35

[10] Ralph de Toledano, Spies, Dupes and Diplomats, (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1988), p. 115

[11] ibid, p. 93

[12] Spies, Dupes and Diplomats, p. 95

[13] Target Tokyo, p. 348, 349

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The Sorge Spy Ring
Boston University
Readings and Research
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Second year research paper about Dr. Richard Sorge and the members of his Tokyo Spy Ring, arguably one of the most effective Russian espionage organisations of the Second World War, second only to Werther and the Red Orchestra.
Sorge, Ring, Readings, Research, Topic Spionage
Quote paper
Philipp Studt (Author), 2004, The Sorge Spy Ring, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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