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The Perfect Spy

John Mulqueen

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, by Owen Matthews, Bloomsbury Publishing, £25, 435 pp, ISBN: 978-1408857786

“My judgement is better than yours.” So Richard Sorge told a fellow communist in Tokyo, in 1936, as she tried to persuade him to follow orders and return to the Soviet Union. Within a year she found herself in the Gulag, along with thousands of Comintern, or Communist International, comrades. Sorge demonstrated good judgement when he refused to go back. He had always been a lucky spy.

Many of those caught up in Stalin’s wave of terror were communist party members. In August 1936, two of the party’s former stars, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, were publicly tried along with sixteen other old Bolsheviks. Charged with plotting to murder Stalin, among other things, they were all executed. By the end of 1938 the Soviet secret police, the NKVD had arrested more than one and a half million people on charges of counter-revolutionary activity and sabotage.

The NKVD chief who personally oversaw the show trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev had a plan to eliminate “agents of foreign intelligence services, disguised as political émigrés, and members of sister parties” who had allegedly penetrated the Soviet state. A list of suspect foreigners associated with the Comintern contained three thousand names; they were all accused of being saboteurs and spies. Several hundred German communists who had fled Hitler’s Germany, or, like Sorge, been invited to work in the Soviet Union, were murdered. More than a thousand were handed over to the Nazis. A Comintern operative recalled the horror of waiting to be arrested: “In the house where the party activists of all the countries were living no one slept until 3 o’clock in the morning … At exactly 3 o’clock the car headlights began to appear … we stayed near the window and waited [to find out] where the car would stop.”

The Red Army, in Stalin’s perverse thinking, had been contaminated by its years of secret co-operation with Germany. Many of its senior officers had studied in Berlin and worked with German counterparts in devising ways to attack their common enemy, Poland. In fact, the concept of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, had been tested during German army manoeuvres on the plains of Belorussia. Almost every officer who visited Germany during this period of co-operation perished in the purge. The NKVD even sought information from the SS on the most senior Red Army commander, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who was accused in 1937 of spying for Nazi Germany. The Germans, all too pleased to destroy Stalin’s best generals, forged documents and passed them to Moscow. Three out of five Soviet marshals, ninety per cent of his generals and eighty per cent of Red Army colonels were arrested during Stalin’s purge.

Soviet intelligence too was believed by Stalin to be riddled with “wreckers, saboteurs, Trotskyist-fascist spies and murderers who infiltrated all our echelons of power”. As a Red Army spy and a foreigner, with a Comintern background, Sorge met the criteria for torture and execution in this paranoid hell – brilliantly depicted some years later by Arthur Koestler in his novel Darkness At Noon. In Tokyo, however, Sorge continued to serve Moscow in safety.

Why did so many Germans find themselves at the mercy of the NKVD in the Soviet Union? Karl Marx had declared that the working class had no country, and Lenin took this idea further by founding the Comintern as the “general staff” of the world revolution. Since the Bolsheviks had created a revolutionary state in Russia, Lenin decided that his party would lead the revolutionary parties around the world. Germany was the key prize in this march towards world revolution, “the powder keg of Europe” in Lenin’s words. “Thus,” Owen Matthews observes, “from its very beginning in 1919, the Communist International was founded on a deception. Ostensibly, its role was to foster communism around the world. Its true function was to gather all foreign radicals into one grand network under the control of Moscow, and to act as a front for Soviet propaganda and intelligence gathering.”

In the wake of failed communist uprisings in Germany, Estonia, Hungary and Italy, the Comintern’s focus shifted from world revolution towards the Soviet Union. Following Lenin’s death, in 1924, the Russian party’s rising star, Stalin, advocated building “socialism in one country”; the future dictator defined an “internationalist” as someone who defended the USSR “unconditionally”. Soviet loyalists who could overlook national interests were now handpicked for Comintern work, and, in 1924, Sorge boarded a train bound for Moscow. His wife, Christiane, followed him, and they lived in the Comintern’s Hotel Lux, a ten-minute walk from the Kremlin and an easy place to watch for the authorities. Some foreigners found the atmosphere in the Hotel Lux strange: “Everybody calls everybody a spy,” an American radical remembered. “Everybody is under surveillance. You never feel safe.” But Sorge, a natural secret agent, was in his element. Christiane, who shared a small room with him, remembered: “No one, ever, could violate the inner solitude, it was this which gave him his complete independence.” Lonely and miserable in dreary Moscow, Christiane returned to Berlin after eighteen months, thus ending her life with her philandering husband.

Sorge too returned to Berlin, as a full-time spy. A natural charmer, he persuaded publishers in the city during his brief stay that he was an expert on China, and, armed with letters of recommendation from them, set up a Soviet espionage base in Shanghai. Divided into self-ruling international enclaves, or concessions, China’s entrepôt served as Asia’s espionage capital. (Matthews provides colourful detail on the decadent playboy pleasures available in the “Whore of the Orient”.) Shanghai was also China’s most industrialised city, and the one with the biggest working class. It had become the headquarters of Chinese communism since an uneasy alliance had broken down between the communist party and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomingtang nationalists, and communists from all over China sheltered in the city’s concessions.

Sorge’s first targets in his charm offensive were German officers drafted into China to modernise the Kuomingtang army. Matthews writes:

It was in the company of these well-paid swells that Sorge discovered, and quickly developed a taste for, the high life of Shanghai. In his previous career among rough and earnest communists, proletarians and intellectuals, Sorge had little opportunity to drink cocktails, dance with elegant women and eat in the finest restaurants. But his new job practically obliged him – at least in his own interpretation – to consume imported whiskey and swap war stories with his new German friends in the salons of Shanghai’s swankiest clubs. To cover his true background as a communist, Sorge had to play the debauched bourgeois expatriate. He found the role entirely to his liking.

He was good at his job. In Shanghai he had to figure out what were Japan’s intentions in China, as Japanese aggression in the Chinese region of Manchuria threatened the security of the Soviet Union. And Japan’s influence in the region, bordering Japanese-ruled Korea, Chinese Mongolia, and the Soviet far east, had grown over several decades. Nominally part of the Chinese republic, Manchuria had been ruled by an anti-Japanese warlord since 1916. Rich in natural resources, the territory supplied coal and iron ore to a booming Japan, which accounted for seventy-three per cent of foreign investment in the region. The South Manchuria Railway linked the coast to the interior and, ultimately, the Trans-Siberian Railway. Japan owned and staffed the Manchurian railway and had controlled a swathe of territory alongside it since its victory in the 1904-’05 Russo-Japanese war.

The Japanese attacked a Chinese barracks outside Shanghai’s International Zone on January 1st, 1932 and the fighting lasted thirty-four days. Visiting the Chinese defences every day, Sorge studied the military tactics of the Japanese and tried to answer a crucial question for the Russians: would Japan attempt to conquer all of China, following its invasion of Manchuria, or push northwards into Siberia? He spent the rest of his career trying to answer it.

Sorge returned to Moscow in 1933, where he received a warm welcome from his boss in Soviet military intelligence. His mission in Shanghai had been successful, and, significantly, his reputation as a German journalist remained untainted by any suspicion of communist sympathies. He now decided to enjoy a break and return to scholarship, with the project of writing a book on Chinese agriculture. However, as before, duty, or action, called, this time the task of setting up an espionage base, or rezidentura, in Tokyo. Nobody doubted the scale of this challenge. “Unlike Shanghai, which teemed with so many spies that they had to make conscious efforts to avoid running into each other, no Soviet ‘illegals’ had ever succeeded in settling in Tokyo,” Matthews notes. “The Japanese were known to be intensely suspicious of all outsiders, and the formal and informal surveillance of foreigners was constant.”

Stalin had every reason to suspect the Japanese. From the earliest days of the Soviet Union the Kremlin had feared encirclement. Through the 1920s, the Soviets worried that Britain, France and the United States would unite to attack the revolutionary state, or, as Winston Churchill put it in 1919, “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle”. Japan’s intentions added to these fears: it had invaded Russian territory three times in living memory – in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese war, in 1910 when it annexed Korea, and then in 1918 when it took advantage of the collapse of the Russian war effort.

Sorge found the Berlin of 1933 very different from the left-leaning city he had last seen in 1929. The newly-formed Gestapo checked the background of all Germans returning from abroad, and leftists were being rounded up. He had to renew his passport and obtain a newspaper correspondent’s card, but his handler in Berlin took a calculated risk and did not believe Sorge’s communist past – brawling on the streets of Kiel, agitating in the pits of the Ruhr, working as a party courier and fixer in Frankfurt – would be unearthed. In Berlin, worried that he might give himself away, Sorge even gave up drinking. “That was the bravest thing I ever did,” he later joked. With typical chutzpah he left the city with everything he needed for his Japanese mission, including a letter of introduction to the German ambassador in Tokyo and a Nazi party card.

His ship docked in Yokohama during the typhoon season. Whereas Shanghai had a cosmopolitan character, Tokyo was a world away from this. Centuries of isolation had made Japan profoundly suspicious of outsiders as potential spies. “Sorge quickly found that, despite the outward appearance of an intensely stable and regulated society, the Japan of 1933 was in reality as stormy as the September weather,” Matthews writes. “Just as in Germany, a brief experiment with liberal democracy had recently floundered.” The economic crisis – the Great Depression – hit hard, as did a disastrous crop failure, and, for many, particularly in the armed forces, extreme nationalism offered the solution. Almost all politicians were united in their fear of communism and the USSR; the communist party had been outlawed in 1925. Those deemed to be guilty of “thought crime” included liberals, socialists, pacifists, Christians, feminists and advocates of birth control.

Good luck, of course, accompanied Sorge. Shortly after his arrival he befriended his most valuable contact in Japan, Lieutenant Colonel Eugen Ott, who could count himself fortunate to have been sidelined to a dreary outpost four hours from the capital – his mentor, Kurt von Schleicher, had been murdered in Hitler’s 1934 purge, “The Night of the Long Knives”. While Sorge put his communist spy ring together, Ott’s career took off when he became the senior military attaché at the German embassy in Tokyo. Sorge, naturally, was delighted: as an insider in the German diplomatic community, he could develop links with Japan’s most powerful pro-German militarists. Through his trading of information with Ott and others the Germans in Tokyo suspected that Sorge, in fact, was a German agent.

By 1938 Soviet military intelligence saw Sorge as both a vital source and a potential traitor. Matthews describes the Russians’ paradoxical attitude towards their star agent:

If Sorge was, in fact, still loyal, his rise in the German embassy was fast making him the most highly placed Soviet agent in the world. No new officer sent by Moscow could ever hope to replicate his extraordinary access. In short, Sorge had become irreplaceable. And if he could be relied on, Sorge’s information was of the utmost importance to the security of the Soviet Union. That ‘if’ would become a question of life and death, not only for Sorge but for Russia itself.

In China the Japanese made their expansionist policies clear by overrunning the nationalist capital, Nanking, murdering upwards of 250,000 people in the process. And in Europe, when Germany took over what remained of Czechoslovakia in early 1939, another war seemed inevitable. The Kremlin wished Hitler would invade anyone except the Soviet Union; the last thing Stalin wanted was an agreement between Germany and Japan, with both aggressors threatening Russia from the east and the west. However, a Pact of Steel between Germany, Italy and Japan – committing them to retaliate if any one of the three were attacked – followed the German/Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact. Stalin had to find a solution to Russia’s encirclement problem, and in 1939 he thought he found it in the west when he signed a non-aggression deal with Hitler and dismembered Poland with his new ally. Under this arrangement, the Soviet Union borrowed time and Hitler focused on attempting to conquer France and Britain.

If Stalin had never trusted Hitler, as some claimed after the Second World War, he had a funny way of showing it. In 1941 Sorge and other Soviet spies warned of the impending German invasion, and were ignored. Stalin described these detailed descriptions of a military build-up as “provocations” and scrawled “suspicious” on a message Sorge sent in June 1941. The Red Army’s spy in Tokyo had a particularly good source – Germany’s ambassador to Japan happened to be his “friend” Ott. By mid-June the volume of reports coming into the Kremlin from around the world were detailed and specific. Matthews comments that “it is hard to read Stalin’s dogged refusal to heed them as anything but an act of wilful self-deception”. Or, as Matthews asks, deception? Stalin more than once sought information from none other than Hitler about German troop deployments. One of his generals, Georgy Zhukov – who later led the Red Army to victory in the Great Patriotic War – recalled being shown one such assurance in mid-June. Zhukov later read the same points line for line in Pravda, which denounced Britain for spreading rumours that Germany and Russia were close to war. One week later three million German troops invaded the Soviet Union.

On the second day of Operation Barbarossa, the still distrusted Sorge was told to send everything he had on the views of the Japanese towards Russia in these new circumstances. Four Red Army divisions were transferred west in July, but could the Soviet far east be left severely weakened to hold the line at Moscow? The urgency of securing oil supplies now influenced the course of the Second World War: Japanese strategists were secretly planning to destroy the US Navy’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, while the Germans were looking towards the Caucasus. Sorge, back in favour with his masters ‑ more or less ‑ gave the Kremlin its first warning that Hitler wanted to attack Stalingrad and that Japan would soon be at war with the USA. Within two weeks the Soviets began to transfer troops, tanks and aircraft in significant numbers to the west. Half the available forces in Siberia were redeployed to defend Moscow. “Though this left the Soviet Far East desperately vulnerable to a possible Japanese assault in 1942,” Matthews writes, “it was clear – as Sorge had repeatedly warned – that the best way to protect Russia’s east was to beat off the Germans in the west.” This happened when the Soviets switched from defensive to offensive mode.

When Stalin took his “master spy” seriously, in September 1941, Sorge’s luck ran out in Tokyo. The spy ring reaching into the heart of the Japanese government was destroyed, and Sorge went to the gallows two years later. A fellow Soviet spy, Kim Philby, summed up Sorge’s espionage work as, quite simply, “impeccable”. But twenty years went by before the Soviet Union honoured him, and then for Cold War purposes; with the Berlin Wall in place, German anti-fascist heroes were needed to burnish the image of the satellite East Germany. Despite the dense detail, An Impeccable Spy is a fascinating and thoroughly researched exploration of intelligence operations during the Hitler years. As another German communist, Bertolt Brecht, put it, these were “dark times”.


John Mulqueen’s monograph “An Alien Ideology”: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left will be published in November by Liverpool University Press.



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