The Case of Richard Sorge
“Normal espionage involves the search for weak spots in the structure of a nation. But my purpose was to keep the peace between Japan and the Soviet Union. And therefore I do not accept that my activities were directed against the national interests of Japan.”
So spoke Richard Sorge to his investigating magistrate in Tokyo in 1942. The argument did not save him. On November 7th, 1944, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the governor of Sugamo prison and the Buddhist chaplain walked him to the gallows, and the trap fell at 10:20 AM. He was, certainly, one of the most daring and successful spies who have ever worked for the Soviet Union or anywhere else, but Sorge was also a man who much enjoyed being alive; he tried very hard indeed to avoid dying. In the first place, he did not refuse for long after his arrest—and there is no direct suggestion of torture—to give the Japanese interrogators a very full confession, blurring only a few episodes and omitting a few names. He hinted for a time that he was in fact a Nazi agent, whose imprisonment would offend against the spirit of the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact. He asked his captors to get in touch with the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo, hoping that the Japanese might let him be exchanged for the sake of the precarious peace with their huge neighbor to the North. Finally, he argued that he was no “mere” spy, but an unorthodox diplomat in the service of peace.
Richard Sorge was no “mere” anything. Mr. Deakin and Mr. Storry, who have written a fascinating and vastly well-researched book whose preparation has taken them all over the world, must conclude that he was primarily what the Japanese and, in the McCarthyite panic after the war, the Americans took him for: an agent of the Fourth Bureau of Soviet military intelligence. Sorge’s startling canonization as a “Hero of the Soviet Union” in 1964, the parallel ceremonies for his dead or surviving companions of the “Sorge Ring” which were carried out in Russia and East Germany that year, can only confirm that. And yet he was much more. As Deakin and Storry take the narrative patiently through his costume changes, they seem to show that none of his aliases was quite a fake. They have found a significant poem which Sorge wrote as a student at Kiel in 1918: “Eternally a stranger, fleeing from himself….”
THE BONES OF THE NARRATIVE are these. Richard Sorge was born in Baku in 1895 as the son of a German engineer and a Russian mother, from whom he inherited slaying, Mephistophelian good looks and perhaps his relish for drink and seduction (though a German thought him a typical Berliner in those respects). He was brought up in Germany, and joined up as a very young volunteer to fight in the First World War. Badly wounded in the leg, Sorge emerged from the war with that unique combination of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.