We’ve written about a few spies on this website, but Richard Sorge, the subject of a new biography by Owen Matthews, was not just any spy. As Joseph Bottum wrote in a recent review of Matthews’s book, An Impeccable Spy, Sorge was “possibly the greatest spy who ever lived.” A German nationalist in his youth, he emerged from World War I (and a subsequent doctoral program in political science) as a diehard Communist. Moving to Moscow, he was hired by the Soviets as a spy and sent back to Germany to work undercover as a journalist and pretend to be a loyal Nazi even as he was spying not only on the Nazis but on their Japanese allies.
He was so good at posing as a Nazi that Goebbels became a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance.
That wasn’t all. He infested the social and professional circle of Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe with fellow Soviet agents. The German ambassador to Japan, Herbert von Dirksen, trusted him so much that he became a fast friend, appointing Sorge to an intelligence post, and giving him “the run of the German embassy.” (Apparently the ambassador didn’t know that Sorge had bedded his wife.) For eight years, as Bottum puts it, Sorge “managed to convince the Germans that he was working for them, the Japanese that he was an important Nazi to whom secrets could be revealed, and the Soviets that he was their man.” It was thanks to him that the Kremlin learned about the establishment of the Axis alliance, about a German-Japanese pact banning the Comintern in those countries, about the Japanese decision not to attack the USSR through Manchuria, and about the planned German invasion of Russia in 1941. Meanwhile Sorge led a social life that makes at least a few of the James Bond movies look tame and unimaginative.
It all had to come crashing down eventually, and so it did. After the Japanese secret police heard one of his secret radio transmissions to te Soviets, they arrested and tortured him, wringing from him a confession before he was hanged in 1944. Although he had provided the Soviets with an extraordinary amount of useful information, and although he proclaimed his undying loyalty to the Communist cause even as he was being executed, the Kremlin repaid his intense devotion by arresting his wife after his death on charges of being a German spy, which she almost certainly was not.
Whether Sorge really was the greatest spy ever seems doubtful. Does the best spy ever end up being caught and hanged by the enemy? Never mind: if not the greatest spy, he was surely one of the most colorful ones. There’s enough material here for a thrilling spy movie. It has sex and skullduggery, drinking and carousing, Nazis and Commies, glimpses of two world wars and a gallery of famous historical figures, plus a whole bunch of picturesque international settings. There’s everything, in fact, except somebody to cheer for: Sorge was, after all, spying against two of the most loathsome regimes in history on behalf of another of the most loathsome regimes in history. What, after all, to make of a German who spied against Hitler to help Stalin? The Soviets, in later years, made him a national hero; to those of us today who despise both Hitler and Stalin equally, he remains one of those puzzling figures whose contempt for one form of totalitarianism was equaled only by his adoration for another form of it.