Born October 4, 1895 in Baku, Russia, son of Wilhelm Sorge, a German mining engineer and his Russian wife Nina. Wilhelm moved the family to Berlin, Germany in 1898.
Grew up very patriotic and nationalistic towards Germany, leaving school and enlisting in the German military in 1914. Served valiantly in battle, being wounded on three occasions. On the third occasion he suffered severe injuries when shrapnel ripped through and broke both of his legs, the injuries causing him to endure a slight limp for the rest of her life. Shipped back to Germany to recover, he began reading the teachings of Karl Marx, for whom his great Uncle had once worked. Disillusioned by the war and the nationalism that existed at the time in Germany, he left the military and focused on obtaining an education. Studying at several schools (including the University of Berlin, University of Kiev and University of Hamburg) received a Ph.D. in Political Science in 1920. At about the same time, he joined the German Communist Party.
So profound was his belief in Communism that he began teaching it to his students while he was a teacher in Hamburg and then to fellow coal miners when he took a job in the mines year later. He was terminated from both jobs. His actions were noted by the German police who labeled him as a Communist spy. As they prepared to arrest him, he slipped out of the country and headed to Moscow where he met Dimitri Manuilsky, the head of Intelligence for the Comintern. Manuilsky set in motion Sorge’s training as a spy, encouraging him to learn English, French and Russian languages.
After significant training, Sorge returned to Germany where he married Christiane Gerlach in May 1921. While his wife was not aware of his espionage work, Sorge was taking more steps to establish himself in that field. He was ordered to move to Frankfurt where he would help to gather intelligence about members of the intellectual community as well as local officials. While in Frankfurt, he also worked to recruit new members into the Communist Party.
In 1923 Sorge met with Russian scholar D. Riaznov who was looking to obtain original documents authored by Karl Marx. Sorge’s uncle, Frederich Sorge, had previously served as Marx’s personal secretary and Sorge was in possession of several of these documents. After providing these to Riaznov, Sorge was introduced by the scholar to a number of high ranking Russian intelligence officers.
Sorge and his wife soon traveled to Moscow where he met with Communist Party officials and received his official Communist Party membership card. After being assigned to the OMS division of the Orgburo, Sorge undertook numerous intelligence operations. His wife, unhappy with the time consumed by his new duties divorced him.
Began working for the GRU in 1930, serving in the Fourth Bureau under General Yan Karlovich Berzin. Sorge was sent to Shanghai in 1930 to help in the attempt to initiate a Communist revolution in China. He gathered intelligence about Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters. Posed as an agricultural researcher and was able to travel throughout China. Worked with underground Communist groups gathering information.
Was introduced to fellow agent Agnes Smedey in late 1930. Smedley put Sorge in contact with her boyfriend, news correspodent Hotsumi Ozaki, from whom Sorge would receive intelligence information for several years. Sorge also worked with a friend of Ozaki’s named Teikichi, also a correspondent, working for the Shanghai Weekly. Passed the information he gathered from these contacts and passed it on to another agent, radio operator Max Klausen. Was briefly involved with Soviet agent Ruth Kuczynski.
As hostilities between Japan and China escalated, Sorge reported back to Moscow about the readiness of CHinese troops and their chances against a superior Japanes military. After Ozaki returned to Japan in 1932, Sorge fell under suspicion of being a spy. He therefore poured himself into his work as a journalist for almost a year.His writing appealed to members of Chang Kai-shek’s military circle, who conferred with Sorge, thus unknowingly providing him with valuable information. he was identified as likely being an agent for Germany.
Sorge was recalled to Moscow in 1932 and met with great praise from his Soviet handlers. While in Russia he married a woman named Yekaterina Maximova. Soon thereafterhe was dispatched to Japan. Because of his excellent work product in China, his Soviet superiors felt that he might be the only agent that could obtain intelligence information in Japan which was at that time extremely secure against information leaks. He was assigned to determine whether Japan was prepared to move militarily against China, with a primary goal of determining the feasibility of developing a Soviet spy network in Japan.
Codenamed “Ramsey”, Sorge went to Germany and obtained a German passport. Traveling as a German journalist, he arrived in Japan in September 1933. His spy cell was limited to himself and three other people in order to provide for maximum secrecy. He worked with Branko Vukelic, Yotoku Miyagi and a radio operator named Bernhardt. He immediately found that Benrhardt was a heavy drinker, a liability in that he was often too impaired to transmit his radio messages. In fact, at one point Sorge discovered that nearly half of his messages had not been transmitted by Bernhardt. Bernhardt was soon thereafter recalled to Moscow. Vukelic was quite adept at photographing documents obtained by Sorge and Sorge received information from Miiyagi, courtesy of Sorge’s old contact Ozaki.
The information that Sorge was receiving was extremely valuable to the Soviet intelligence officials to whom he reported. His information stream improved significantly in 1932 when Teikichi Kawai returned from China to Tokyo. Kawai began passing information he obtained from the Japanese Army personnel. As Sorge’s information cache grew abundantly, he traveled back and forth from Japan and Russia to hand-deliver it, since he did not have anyone to radio the information. Along his trip, he traveled through the United States where he met with Communist Party members and passed along their information.
Upon his visit to Moscow in 1935, Sorge met with General Uritsky, the head of the Fourth Bureau having replaced General Berzin when Josef Stalin came into power. Sorge showed detailed personnel charts of the Japanese military officers and their attitudes towards the Soviet Union, United States and Britain. Ozaki was officially brought back into the fold of his spy ring as was his former radio operator Max Klausen in November 1935. Sorge and Klausen met weekly for an information exchange while Klausen worked under the cover of a successful blueprints printer.
The Sorge spy ring came under the attention of Japanese intelligence and in January 1936 the Japanese secret police arrested Kawai, charging him with being a spy. Kawai, although interrogated and tortured over a period of six months in Manchuria, refused to provide any information and was subsequently released.
A military incident in February 1936 compelled the German Embassy to call Sorge in and give them an assessment of the political and military climate in Japan. So impressed were the Embassy officials that they considered Sorge a trusted ally and provided him with significant information about the Japanese government. Sorge quickly passed this information along to Moscow, including plans for a intended alliance between Germany and Japan. As his apparent value to the German government appeared to grow, so did his real value to the Soviet Union.
Sorge reported Japanese intentions to attack the United States and emphasized that Japan had no immediate intentions of engaging the Soviet Union in warfare.
The Sorge spy ring was compromised when Yotoku Miyagi was arrested by the police and interrogated over several days. Miyagi refused to talk despite repeated beatings by the police but attempted to commit suicide unsuccessfully by jumping out of a second floor window. He subsequently caved under pressure and acknowledged that he was a part of Sorge’s Communist spy ring.
The Japanese High Police (Kempei Tai) were called in and arrested Ozaki, eventually beating a confession out of him. Although afraid of causing an International incident by arresting Sorge and Klausen, they decided to arrest them. On October 18, 1941, Japanese police conducted a sweep, arresting Sorge, Klausen and Vukelic. They discovered several messages in plain sight that Klausen was prepared to send to Moscow as well as evidence in the possession of Sorge and Vukelic. Klausen eventually implicated Sorge and Vukelic refused to admit anything. Vukelic would eventually draw life sentence as did Klausen. After six days of brutal torture, Sorge confessed to his part in the spy ring.
On November 7, 1944, Sorge and Ozaki were executed by hanging.
Sorge is remembered as one of the Soviet Union’s most accomplished and valuable spies. He was named a hero of the Soviet state in 1964 and eventually had a postage stamp in his likeness issued.