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Master Spy

The Case of Richard Sorge

by F.W. Deakin, by G.R. Storry
Harper & Row, 373 pp., $6.00

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 profound horror and intense military pride which made the German post-trench generation an even more tragic company than the British survivors. By 1919, he was in the German Communist Party (KPD), and by about 1924 he had been recruited by Russian visitors for the intelligence services of the Comintern.

He traveled widely, clandestinely. In 1929, so Deakin and Storry make clear, he faced a major crisis of political conscience, when it became obvious on one of his returns to Moscow that the Comintern was being ruthlessly “Russified” and that Sorge himself was on the shelf. His eventual response was not to resign out of wounded idealism or return to KPD work, but to join Red Army Intelligence itself. Sorge’s destination, so the Fourth Bureau decided, must be the Far East, and he arrived in Shanghai as a journalist, equipped with a recommendation from the German Foreign Ministry. Here he set up an espionage ring, whose main purpose was to study the strength of the Kuomintang: Here he met Agnes Smedley, Gerhart Eisler, the Japanese journalist Ozaki Hotsumi, and a succession of flitting Slav shadows with Moscow assignments identifiable only as “John,” “Paul,” and “George” (no Ringo arrived). From 1933 onwards, Sorge was in Japan as correspondent for the great Frankfurter Zeitung and several other German papers; he was now a Nazi party member and registered with Dr. Goebbels’s Reichspressekammer. In Tokyo, Sorge became well known not only as a tearaway off the Ginza but, in daylight hours, as an immensely well-informed and scholarly expert on Japanese affairs. The German Embassy, especially General Ott, who later became ambassador and who was a personal friend of Sorge’s from the outset, came to rely ever more heavily on his knowledge. By the time of his arrest Sorge had an office within the Embassy, and was constantly shown secret documents and telegrams.

With this knowledge, and with the priceless intelligence supplied by Ozaki from sources around Prince Konoye and by his third main informant, the painter Miyagi Otoku, Richard Sorge may have influenced history. Above all stand two triumphs: He was able to warn Moscow in May 1941 of the exact date of the impending German onslaught, and he was able to assure the Soviet Union in October 1941 that Japan would not attack her Siberian rear but would strike at the United States and Southeast Asia. This may have saved Moscow. The Russians were able to remove fresh troops from the eastern frontier and rush them into the critical battle before the capital. Almost as soon as this major appreciation had been completed, which Sorge regarded as the end of his assignment, he was arrested.

Messrs. Deakin and Storry, themselves “heroes of scholarship” and well-respected Oxford dons, have produced one of the most exact and absorbing accounts of really high-level modern espionage which the public is allowed to buy. To do this, they have had the fun of axeing through a mass of legend, from the new Soviet hagiology to the horrible distortions of the Sorge story which accompanied the crucifixion of the Institute of Pacific Relations. One should add that in their researches they came across much curious and intriguing information which they have decided not to print, prudently or, for certain living individuals, mercifully. They have pointed out the haunting ambiguities in the Sorge affair, but preferred not to seal them with definite verdicts.

IN THE FIRST PLACE, was Sorge a double agent? He certainly let the German Embassy in Tokyo have some of the intelligence gathered by his ring, but was this more than ground-bait? Dubious scraps of evidence point to a connection with the Abwehr, run by Admiral Canaris, who was himself executed in 1944 as an anti-Hitler conspirator. Here a recent article by Dr. Margret Boveri, a veteran journalist and historian who knew Sorge in Tokyo, throws suggestive light. She claims that Deakin and Storry have missed subtleties of German attitudes in this period: Sorge, even in wartime, spoke freely in the Embassy of his contempt for Hitler and his admiration for the Soviet Union, and many of his hearers agreed with him. This did not mean that they were fellow-travelers: On the contrary, they were nationalists of a particular stamp. Ott, for instance, had been a colleague of Schleicher, who had watched approvingly the secret military co-operation between Berlin and Moscow during the Weimar Republic. Men who believed in the anti-Napoleonic, Bismarckian tradition of a European peace founded on Russo-German friendship welcomed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as much as they despised its signatories. Up to June 1941, when Hitler finally attacked Russia and changed a European conflict into a world war, Sorge could well have worked for German counter-intelligence, particularly under an anti-Nazi like Canaris, without feeling that he was committing essential treachery to his masters of the Fourth Bureau in Moscow. The attack on Russia was of course a Rubicon: From then on, a Communist could have no other loyalty to Germany’s destiny than to work for her defeat by the Red Army. From then on, he was unquestionably betraying his friend Ott, whose career was ruined by Sorge’s arrest and unmasking. It was especially German soldiers, survivors of the trenches and officers with a lasting resentment against the West, who took this pro-Russian view. Sorge, who never overcame his emotional involvement with his war comrades, was just such a man. It is mistaken hindsight, and a surrender to West German official attitudes today, to imagine that a devoted Communist, as Sorge was, could not share these “bourgeois-patriotic” attitudes even in the Thirties. Russia and Germany, the two outlaws of Versailles, would find their common interest in standing together against the greedy, capitalist-imperialist West which would enslave Germany if it could and return the Whites to power in Russia. In time, the Revolution would spread to Germany.

Perhaps, then, Richard Sorge was not only trying to save his neck when he told his captors that he was a German agent, and a “spy for peace.” There was something in it—how much, we may never find out. And yet the double-agent element about Sorge was utterly unlike the predicament of those drab, fictional characters of Greene and Le Carré, who have forgotten whom they really belong to because one employer is just as ruthless and ungrateful as the other. Sorge believed, not too little but too much.

He believed in Communism, and he believed in Germany as well as the Soviet Union. He, who had once been a quiet kind of person, became the bar-fly and roustabout he acted in Tokyo. He played the part of a man with a deep knowledge of and affection for Japanese culture and history, and this too was sincere, a genuine passion. His cover in Shanghai and Tokyo was that of a journalist, but as this book makes very clear, with abundant quotations, he became a really excellent foreign correspondent. His dispatches for the Frankfurter Zeitung, for the Berliner Tageblatt, for Geopolitik were highly intelligent contributions to the analysis of Far Eastern affairs in the Thirties and Forties which are still useful material for a student. In fact, it can be blamed on Sorge that he and his masters helped to justify the suspicion of foreign correspondents entertained to this day by counter-intelligence services throughout the world: His ring, from Ozaki on Asahi Shimbun onwards, almost all took the cover of journalism. Editors from Agence Havas to the News Chronicle enjoyed unwittingly the minor plums collected by the Fourth Bureau’s Far Eastern network.

Dr. Boveri asks whether “Sorge was not exactly what he pretended to be, a person with deep and contradictory loyalties on both sides, half German and half Russian, who perhaps never turned his own imaginative intuition upon the cleft within himself, but tried to plaster it over with boozing and speeding on his motor-cycle…” And yet there was method in his contradictions. The knowledge gleaned by the Sorge ring went to Moscow, to the Germans to the press of the world, but all the reports converged upon one purpose: Sorge’s own view of how best the peace and progress of his diseased world could be advanced.

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