Imagine you had some of the world’s best spymasters, espionage rings, and analysts in the world, that intellectuals around the world were enamored with you and wanted to feed you information, and that all of that intelligence was needed to protect your massive military as it faced off against an existential threat to your people, your government, and your nation.
Then imagine you ignored all of that information because, like, can you ever really trust a spy?
Richard Sorge, one of the most successful (and dead) spies of World War II.
That was the reality for many of the spies in World War II, especially Richard “Ika” Sorge, whose spy reports gave a detailed breakdown of the Nazi blitz preparing to smash into the Soviet Union. He watched his nation fail to marshal its troops to face the threat.
Sorge born in 1895 to a German engineer working in Baku, Azerbajin, then a part of the Russian Empire and a major oil-producing region. He served in World War I with the German military but fell in love with communist ideology. After the war, he began teaching Marxism and got a PhD in political theory.
He moved to Moscow in 1924 and was recruited into Soviet intelligence and sent to China, then Japan. Through a surprising bit of luck, Sorge was able to meet up with a German officer named Lt. Col. Eugen Ott in Japan and become a member of the Nazi party.
Richard Sorge was wounded in World War I.
(Photo by Eva Tilden)
As the conflicts that would flare up into World War II grew, Sorge was a member of the Soviet intelligence as well as the Nazi party and was respected in China and Japan. Better, he had intelligence assets available in all four countries. He was also a famous womanizer. In all four of these countries, he had women who fed him intelligence information that they wouldn’t dare tell anyone else.
He used the intelligence he gathered in Tokyo to ingratiate himself with the Germans who wanted to keep an eye on their Pacific ally. The trust he built up through feeding Berlin information allowed him to gather a lot of intelligence about the Nazis that he could feed to his true masters in Moscow.
In 1938, Sorge got in even deeper with the Nazis when his German handler got sick and his old friend Ott, who had helped him join the Nazi party in the first place, asked him to take on the task of drafting the German Embassy’s dispatches to Berlin, filled with all sorts of great information to pass on to his Moscow superiors.
In 1940 and 1941, Sorge was able to tap into his networks in China and Germany to paint a detailed picture of one of the most important points in the war: The German blitz against the Soviet Union.
A Soviet T-34 burns in the field during Operation Barbarossa.
Sorge, reporting from Tokyo, achieved a shocking level of precision, detailing the size of the force and pinpointing the week that the Nazis would invade. He reported that the attack would take place sometime between June 20 and 25. Operation Barbarossa, as it was named, launched on June 22.
Between Sorge and a spy in China, Walther Stennes, Moscow received 42 reports, all of them brushed aside by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin who thought he had the measure of Hitler.
German officers pose with a captured Soviet plane.
The Soviet military, ill-positioned and -prepared, saw entire units swallowed up, killed, and captured as the Nazis cutoff unprotected supply lines and overran barely fortified positions. 600,000 Soviet troops were killed, captured, or seriously wounded in the first week while 4,000 aircraft were destroyed, many of them still on the ground.
Germany penetrated the Soviet Union 200 miles deep along a nearly 1,800-mile front in only seven days.
Of course, the Soviets were able to push the German forces back, largely thanks to delusional planning on the German side. Germany had expected to conquer Moscow before true winter set in and failed to properly equip its troops for fighting in the frozen wasteland that Russia quickly became. Commanders, chasing the operation’s impossible timetable, failed to secure their gains and left their own lengthening supply lines too lightly guarded.
The harsh winter and Soviet counterattacks hit hard. Russia, with its superior resources and manpower, was able to bleed Germany for its treachery and bloodshed.
But all of this came too late for the thousands unnecessarily lost in those opening days, as well as for Richard Sorge. Sorge continued to send information back to Moscow, including one important report that was actually read and believed. He was able to determine with a high degree of certainty that Tokyo would not enter the European Theater unless it was clear that Russia had lost, preferably if Moscow fell.
The Red Army moved massive numbers of troops from their Easter Front to the west, hastening their success against Hitler.
Even more impressive, Sorge had a contact with the Japanese premier’s closest advisers, and he was able to feed them information convincing them to keep invading further south into China and towards European positions in Asia, relieving pressure from Soviet Forces on the Eastern Front.
But Sorge’s luck ran out. On Oct. 10, 1941, security police arrested two members of Sorge’s espionage ring, and one of them spilled all the beans. Sorge was arrested and eventually cracked, admitting to being a communist spy. He was executed on Nov. 7, 1944, refused even his dying cigarette.