On this day in 1944, Richard Sorge, a half-Russian, half-German Soviet spy, who had used the cover of a German journalist to report on Germany and Japan for the Soviet Union, is hanged by his Japanese captors.
Sorge fought in World War I in the German army, and then earned his doctorate in political science at the University of Hamburg. He joined Germany’s Communist Party in 1919, traveling to the USSR in 1924. His first major assignment for Soviet intelligence was in the late 1920s, when he was sent to China to organize a spy ring. Returning to Germany, he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 to perfect his cover as a loyal German. He proceeded to develop a reputation as a respected journalist working for the Frankfurter Zeitung, finally convincing his editors to send him to Tokyo as a foreign correspondent in the mid-1930s. Once in Japan, Sorge proceeded once again to create a spy ring, which included an adviser to the Japanese cabinet and an American communist, who was also working for Soviet intelligence as Sorge’s interpreter.
Sorge had so successfully ingratiated himself with the German diplomatic community in Japan that he was allowed to work out of the German embassy, giving him access to confidential files. At the same time, he also befriended Japanese government officials, attempting to convince them not to go to war with the Soviet Union.
In May 1941, Sorge reported back to Moscow that Hitler was planning an invasion of the Soviet Union, and that 170 divisions were preparing to invade on June 20, but Stalin ignored the warning. Sorge was also able to report, in August 1941, that Japan had plans to attack targets in the South Pacific, not in the Soviet Union. This enabled Stalin to remove troops from the Manchurian border, freeing them up for when the Germans finally invaded, as there would be no “eastern front.”
But Sorge’s brilliant spy career came to an end on October 18, 1941, when Japanese counterintelligence exposed his operation and he was arrested, along with 34 members of his ring. He was finally hanged in 1944. Twenty years later, he was officially declared a Hero of the Soviet Union.