Richard Sorge, An Impeccable Spy: Owen Matthews (1941)

In this thrilling episode of Travels Through Time, Owen Matthews takes us back to 1941 to see Richard Sorge, the ‘spy to end all spies’, operating at the highest level in the most dangerous months of the Second World War.


Two events in 1941 did more than anything else to settle the shape and outcome of the Second World War. The first was the most fateful decision of Adolf Hitler’s life: the launching of Operation Barbarossa against the USSR on 22 June. The second was the surprise Japanese aerial attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbour, six months later on 7 December.

These events appear crystal clear to us in retrospect, but for many living at that time they came like a flash out of the blue. A few people, though, did know what was coming. One of them was one of the most extraordinary communist underground operatives of the twentieth century: Richard Sorge. Sorge ran a Soviet spy group in Tokyo from the 1930s onwards that achieved astonishing access into the Nazi war machine.

A drinker, a womaniser, a risk-taker, all on a breath-taking scale, one journalist has classified Sorge ‘as an example of the rare species we might call Homo undercoverus – those who find the dull, unclassified lives that the rest of us lead simply not worth living.’

Our guest on Travels Through Time today is Owen Matthews, author of a new biography of Sorge. Owen studied Modern History at Oxford. His book, Stalin's Children, was translated into twenty-eight languages and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

The scenes and subjects described in this episode feature in Owen Matthews biography of Richard Sorge, An Impeccable Spy. The book is available in paperback from Bloomsbury now.

Show notes:

Scene One: 31 May 1941, The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Richard Sorge receives final confirmation that Operation Barbarossa will shortly be launched.

Scene Two: 22 June 1941. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Sorge’s bitter fury when he hears news of the German invasion.

Scene Three: One night in August, 1941. The Embassy Ballroom with Sorge and Eta Harich-Schneider

Memento: Richard Sorge’s lighter


Presenter: Peter Moore

Guest; Owen Matthews

Producer: Maria Nolan

Editorial: Artemis Irvine

Titles: Jon O


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