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Mata Hari: the spy who wasn't really a spy

AFP | Mata Hari became famous as an exotic dancer.

On October 15th, 1917, Margaretha Zelle, known as Mata Hari, was sentenced to death in France for espionage. A hundred years later, her name still evokes intrigue. Yet, the former dancer was never really a great spy.


The day after Mata Hari was killed by firing squad, her death made headlines. “The end of a spy. Mata Hari has been executed by firing squad. Yesterday the Hindu dancer atoned for the odious treason against France of which she was guilty,” read the front page of Matin. Or as Le Petit Journal wrote, “Mata Hari payed with her life for the treason she committed against France that had so warmly welcomed her.”

These newspapers couldn't have expressed more strongly their rancor for the woman who had fallen under a hail of bullets on the execution grounds at Versailles. A hundred years later, her name still resonates in the French collective memory, an emblematic fantasy of the ultimate exotic spy.

Just years before her death, however, Mata Hari was renown and celebrated throughout the whole of Paris. Born in the Netherlands in 1876 as Margaretha Zelle, she became famous in the beginning of the 20th century by performing in private salons, and eventually at the Musée Guimet, France’s National Museum for Asian Art. There, she indulged a rapt public in the dance traditions that she had learned during time spent in the Dutch East Indies with her ex-husband, a Dutch naval officer.

In an article in the Courrier français from 1905, a journalist describes one of her performances: “She undulates beneath veils that cloak and reveal her at the same time. It bears no resemblance to anything we’ve ever seen. Her breasts rise listlessly, her eyes drown in themselves. Her hands stretch out and fall back down, as if laden with sun and effort.”

© Wikimedia | A postcard showing Mata Hari in 1906.
© Wikimedia | A postcard showing Mata Hari in 1906.

A wordly life

It was perfect trickery, because Mata Hari (“the eye of the day” in Malay) was no professional dancer. She invented a Hindu past and invented “traditional” dances that were anything but. Yet the charade worked, and Mata Hari found herself in high demand.

“She had her hour of glory at the time,” explains Frédéric Guelton, who wrote about Mata Hari for la Revue historique des armées. “She found a way to live a moneyed, worldly life financed by wealthy men, namely bankers.”

But as years passed and trends changed, popular tastes moved away from exotic spectacles, and towards displays like Russian ballet. When the First World War broke out, Mata Hari was over thirty years old, and no longer attracted the crowds that she needed to maintain her lifestyle. She returned to her native country, where, in Amsterdam in 1916, she was approached by the German consul who offered her money in exchange for gathering information. She became Agent H21.

“At the time she imagined that she would spy by manipulating men, the way she had before the war. She didn’t have any political or ideological convictions. Her only conviction was living the good life,” says Guelton.

Double agent

Once back in Paris, Mata Hari returned to her pre-war way of life. She took up residence at the Grand Hotel, and fell in love with a young Russian officer. After he was injured on the front he was sent to a military area in the town of Vittel, home to the famed thermal springs. The former dancer, desperate to see him, sought a laissez-passer from Georges Ladoux, a French captain who also happened to be a counter-espionage officer. He granted her request, proposing that she also work for France. And so Mata Hari became a double agent.

“Ultimately, she never gathered intelligence for either side,” notes Guelton. “When the Germans realized that they couldn’t get anything interesting from her, and that the French were also using her, they decided to turn her in.”

According to Guelton, they deliberately mentioned “Agent H21” in messages they knew would be intercepted by French counter-espionage, intending for French intelligence to discover that Mata Hari was a double agent. The trap worked, and on February 13th, 1917, she was arrested in Paris. A few months later, Mata Hari was sentenced to death for spying for the enemy during a time of war.

© Wikimedia | Mata Hari on the day of her arrest, February 13, 1917
© Wikimedia | Mata Hari on the day of her arrest, February 13, 1917

Victim of propaganda

Nevertheless, as was later shown by André Mornet, the substitute prosecutor during Mata Hari’s trial, her being charged for spying, he said, “wasn’t worth getting worked up over.” Guelton shares that opinion: “There was enough evidence to sentence her to jail for having been recruited by the Germans, but execution… She didn’t deserve that.” For the historian, Mata Hari’s end served the purposes of the French state’s propaganda of the era. “1917 was a terrible year. The government had to show that despite German offensives, the Russian Revolution, and mutinies on the field, France was going to hold out until victory. By executing this woman, the government showed that it was willing to do whatever it took.”

The propaganda around Mata Hari was effective; in numerous films that followed, and in popular imagination to this day, she has remained the perfect spy in the service of Germany.

Even if reality is quite different from the Mata Hari myth, Guelton remains no less admiring of the path tread by the worldly woman turned double agent. “She was a woman who had a certain audacity throughout her entire life. She had no career plan, but every time she managed. And she displayed courage right up to the moment of her execution.”

Léon Bizard, chief doctor for the police, testified to that effect in his 1925 memoir: “While an officer read the sentence, the dancer, who refused to be blindfolded, placed herself against the post, and a rope, not even tied, was slipped around her waist… (…) Mata Hari smiled at sister Léonide who was kneeling and made a farewell gesture. The commanding officer raised his sabre: a sharp noise, followed by the less shocking thud of bullets, and the red dancer rolled forward, headfirst, an inert mass that dripped with blood.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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