The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fascinating story of the alcoholic, womanizing German double agent who turned the tide of World War II

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A 71-year-old working at an antique book dealer in Tokyo was sifting through a stack of old documents recently acquired from a Japanese collector when he came upon a fascinating discovery. According to a Tuesday article in the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading dailies, Yoshio Okudaira, the bookstore employee, found a signed 1938 letter from Nazi Germany's then Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

It was a greeting card to a certain Richard Sorge, who at the time was posted in Japan as a reporter for a German newspaper. Ribbentrop's letter, likely done at the behest of the German ambassador in Japan, congratulated Sorge on the occasion of his 43rd birthday and praised him for his "outstanding contribution" as a part-time press officer to the German Embassy in Tokyo.

Sorge was indeed working overtime, but not for the Nazis. He was secretly a Soviet agent, tasked with building up a spy ring of Communist conspirators in Tokyo. The ring, led by Sorge and the left-leaning Japanese journalist Hotsumi Ozaki, cabled detailed, coded assessments of Japanese troop movements to Soviet authorities and even managed to tip off Stalin to the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two months before it actually happened.

[Don't forget how the Soviet Union saved the world from Hitler.]

Most significantly, Sorge gave military planners in Moscow two pivotal bits of information in 1941: first, that Nazi Germany was massing divisions on its eastern front, in preparation for an offensive against the Soviet Union that would scrap a non-aggression pact inked by Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart in 1939; second, that Imperial Japan, despite its alliance with Nazi Germany, would focus its troops on the war effort in China as well as making inroads further afield into Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The decision to open a new front against the Soviets would be contingent on how swiftly the Nazi offensive succeeded.

Eventually, Sorge became certain that Japan had its hands full, and was also planning an assault on the United States. "In the careful judgment of all of us here…the possibility of [Japan] launching an attack [on the U.S.S.R.], which existed until recently, has disappeared," Sorge reported to Moscow in September 1941.

Stalin had ignored earlier warnings from Sorge, supposedly dismissing the agent as "a sh*t who has set himself up with some little factories and brothels in Japan." But now he was convinced. The Soviets moved a huge part of their Far Eastern reserves to the west.

"In the next two months, 15 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, 1,700 tanks, and 1,500 aircraft moved from the Soviet Far East to the European front," writes historian Stuart Goldman. "It was these powerful reinforcements that turned the tide in the Battle of Moscow in the first week of December 1941, at the same time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor."

The desperate Soviet resistance of the Nazi war machine, as WorldViews discussed here, was perhaps the single most important factor in the Allied victory against Hitler in World War II. For his vital piece of intelligence, Sorge forever earned his place in the history of espionage.

But he was already a larger than life figure. Born in 1895 in what's now Azerbaijan to a Russian mother and German engineer father, Sorge eventually grew up in Germany and came of age in the trenches of World War I, where he was injured. While nursing his wounds, he developed Marxist sympathies and spent the next decade shuttling forth between Germany and the Soviet Union, trailing a string of wives, mistresses and lovers in his wake.

Sorge eventually joined the Red Army's military intelligence unit and then went about building up his Nazi bona fides in Berlin, becoming a member of the fascist party. A notoriously heavy drinker, he abstained from alcohol while in Nazi beer halls to ensure that he wouldn't give himself away with a slip of the tongue. Rather than making himself conspicuous, Sorge's discipline won him the trust of Nazi sources.

"That was the bravest thing I ever did. Never will I be able to drink enough to make up for this time," he supposedly told Hede Massing, an Austrian actress turned Soviet agent who later defected and moved to America.

By 1933, Sorge was at his post in Japan and set about insinuating himself into German and Japanese diplomatic circles. In October 1941, the Japanese eventually caught on to Sorge's spy ring and had him and his co-conspirators arrested. He was hanged three years later.

Until his arrest, Sorge had maintained a concerted party lifestyle, and had many admirers. Here, apparently, is one Japanese account of Sorge, as narrated by Massing:

Physically, Sorge was a big man, tall and handsome, brown hair. His brow was creased and furrowed and his face lined. From a glance at his face you could tell that he had lived a hard and rough life. There was no arrogance or cruelty to the set of his eyes and the lines of his mouth.

Indeed, unlike a cast of other Soviet spooks later outed in the decades following World War II, Sorge has maintained a largely heroic quality. Ian Fleming, the author of the spy novels that would give the world James Bond, hailed Sorge as "the man whom I regard as the most formidable spy in history."

The discovery of Ribbentrop's letter to Sorge is a minor detail. It's unlikely, reports the Asahi Shimbun, that the Nazi foreign minister actually knew who Sorge was and had, instead, simply lent his autograph to a note put together by the German ambassador (and Sorge's close friend) Eugen Ott.

But it's a sign of the degree to which Sorge had his German sources duped. It also, as the AFP reports, clearly piqued the curiosity of one Japanese bookworm, seven decades later.

"I thought, 'Here is interesting stuff,'" said Okudaira.