There have been several biographies and histories about women spies and resisters in World War II. It’s often hard to know what precipitates these mini-trends. I’ve read and enjoyed several of these books (links to them at the end of this post), but the one I read most recently is Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy by Ben Mcintyre. A friend gave the book to me with an enthusiastic recommendation. He was right on–this is a great story.
It’s hard not to think about risk-taking when reading this. What motivates people to insert themselves into life-threatening situations over and over again? Many of us have strong beliefs, but not all of us are willing to die for them. Agent Sonya–or Ursula Kuczynski, as she was born–did exactly this all of her life. She came of age in Weimar Germany, daughter of wealthy secular Jewish parents. Resentment against the Versailles Treaty permeated German politics in the 1920s and the economic disasters of the Weimar Republic only heightened dissatisfaction. Sadly, we know where it all led.
Starting in her late teens, Ursula was attracted to the better world promised by the Communist Party and soon became an avid member, desperate to be of us to the movement. As she proved herself, she was given more responsibility. She married a young architect who was a Communist sympathizer but it was her love affair with Red Army intelligence officer Richard Sorge that set her firmly on the path to espionage. Sorge was an irresistible combination of charisma and brutality. Handsome and self-indulgent, he spent his life organizing networks of Soviet spies without questioning the ruthless regime he worked for. Ursula fell under his spell and never looked back. She worked in China and Manchuria before World War II, recruiting agents, organizing secret drops of information, and transmitting documents and reports to Moscow in the wee hours of the night. She endured marriages arranged by the Party, had three children, and rose through the ranks.
Her most stunning achievement was during World War II in Britain, where, resettled in a Cotswold village, she integrated seamlessly into village life with husband number three and her three children. All the while, she had agents who infiltrated the British atomic bomb project. Stalin was desperate not to fall behind the U.S. and the U.K. in creating this weapon. Sonya’s agent, the atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs, provided her with detailed plans first in Britain and then from the U.S. when he was hired for the Manhattan Project. Her dispatches went straight to Stalin’s desk.
This factual description of Sonya’s work doesn’t do justice to the fascinating details of her exploits and the way McIntyre portrays her emotional states. Her eagerness to be of maximum use to the Communist movement to which she was devoted always clashed with her concern for her children’s safety. She was torn between those two poles all her adult life. British and American intelligence agents were close but couldn’t imagine this ordinary housewife could be so dangerous. It’s a great story.
Here are some other books about women spies and resisters in World War II. There are many more.
A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy From Fascism by Caroline Moorehead
Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra by Shareen Blair Brysac