For me, the exploits of spies have always held an enduring fascination as espionage exerts a powerful hold over my imagination. Mata Hari falls into that category.
Why write a blog about Mata Hari and not Sydney Reilly the self-proclaimed Ace of Spies? For me that fascination revolves around the fact that Mata Hari was a woman.
Mata Hari, the archetype of the seductive female spy was ultimately convicted for espionage. This culminated in her execution by a French firing squad at Vincennes outside of Paris.
As Helen Mirren inelegantly once put it, “The role of women has always been undervalued in the spy world, always in terms of recognition. Unfairly so. It’s a world that needs women.”
The syntax and grammar might have been poor but the sentiment expressed is incontestably accurate. Perhaps female spies have an unfair advantage but then in the world of spy craft, one requires all the aces and other trump cards that one can acquire.
Her younger years
Mata Hari was born as the prosaic Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876 in the Netherlands. After an affluent upbringing until the age of 13, her young life was shattered on her parent’s divorce. Finally at 18 she replied to an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod – a Scot – who was living in the then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and was looking for a wife. Zelle married MacLeod in Amsterdam in 1895. They moved to Malang on the East side of the island of Java and had two children. The marriage was an overall disappointment, if not an unmitigated disaster. MacLeod appears to have been an alcoholic who would take out his frustrations on his wife, who was twenty years his junior.
The disenchanted Zelle abandoned him and started studying the Indonesian traditions intensively, joining a local dance company. In 1897, she revealed her artistic name of Mata Hari, Malay for “sun” (literally, “eye of the day”). In 1899, her two children fell violently ill from complications relating to the treatment of syphilis contracted from their parents. Ultimately they succumbed to the disease and died.
Return to Europe
Mata Hari first came to Paris in 1905 and found fame as a performer of exotic Asian-inspired dances. She soon began touring all over Europe, telling the story of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess who gave her the name Mata Hari. Regardless of her authenticity, she packed dance halls and opera houses from Russia to France, mostly because her show consisted of her slowly stripping nude.
Her style and her free-willed attitude made her a very popular woman, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing. She posed for provocative photos and mingled in wealthy circles. At the time, as most Europeans were unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies and thus thought of Mata Hari as exotic, it was assumed her claims were genuine.
She became a famous courtesan, and with the outbreak of World War I her catalogue of lovers began to include high-ranking military officers of various nationalities.
Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.
Her second career
During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Zelle was thus able to cross national borders freely.
Now nearing 40, plumpish and with her dancing days clearly behind her, Mata Hari fell in love with a 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff, in 1916. During their courtship, Masloff was sent to the Front, where an injury left him blind in one eye. Determined to earn money to support him, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, an army captain who assumed her courtesan contacts would be of use to French intelligence. Her first entrance into the world of spying was reporting to be when she became the mistress of the German Attaché in Paris.
According to Mata Hari’s later testimony, she planned to use her connections to seduce her way into the German High Command, obtain secrets and hand them over to the French—but she never got that far. The German attaché soon began tossing him bits of gossip, hoping to get some valuable information in return. Instead, she got named as a German spy in communiqués he sent to Berlin—which were promptly intercepted by the French.
On her way to Germany via England, she was detained in England and accused of being a spy. When confronted with the facts, Mata Hari vehemently denied that she was spying for the Germans. Her defence was that she was in fact spying for the French and was en route to Germany in this regard. As her contact in the French Secret Service she offered the name Georges Ladoux who refused to confirm that she indeed working for the French Authorities.
Being an alien foreigner, she was deported to Spain where she immediately befriended some Germans in Madrid. In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named H-21. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information it contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. In fact the Code had been broken by the French, but by the British “Room 40” team falling under MI6.
On her return to Paris, Mata Hari was immediately arrested her for espionage in Paris in February 1917. They threw her in a rat-infested cell at the Prison Saint-Lazare, where she was allowed to see only her elderly lawyer—who happened to be a former lover.
During lengthy interrogations by a military prosecutor, Mata Hari, who had long lived a fabricated life, embellishing both rearing and resume, bungled and facts about her whereabouts and activities. Eventually, she dropped a bombshell confession: A German diplomat had once paid her 20,000 francs to gather intelligence on her frequent trips to Paris. But she swore to investigators that she never actually fulfilled the bargain and always remained faithful to France. She told them she simply viewed the money as compensation for furs and luggage that had once disappeared on a departing train while German border guards hassled her.
Trial for Espionage
Mata Hari’s trial came at a time when the Allies were failing to beat back German advances. Real or imagined spies were convenient scapegoats for explaining military losses, and Mata Hari’s arrest was one of many. In reality with the French troops mutinous after the Battle of Verdun, the French required a morale booster to prevent their imminent collapse. Her chief foil, Captain Georges Ladoux, made sure the evidence against her was constructed in the most damning way—by some accounts even tampering with it to implicate her more deeply.
So when Mata Hari admitted that a German officer paid her for sexual favours, prosecutors depicted it as espionage money. Additionally, currency she claimed was a regular stipend from a Dutch baron was portrayed in court as coming from German spymasters. That amorous Dutch baron, who could have shed light on the truth, was never called to testify.
Inasmuch as Ladoux was aware that in fact Mata Hari was a French spy, he held her fate in his hands. This fact was never ever entered into evidence in the trial not even in mitigation of sentence.
Mata Hari’s morals conspired against her, as well. “Without scruples, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy,” concluded Bouchardon, whose relentless interviews were the blueprint for the prosecution.
The military tribunal deliberated for less than 45 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. “It’s impossible, it’s impossible,” Mata Hari exclaimed, upon hearing the decision.
Her defence attorney, veteran international lawyer Edouard Clunet, faced impossible odds; he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly. Under the circumstances, her conviction was a foregone conclusion. She was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.
In my viewpoint, Mata Hari might have put on a titillating performance during her shows and played the role of seductress and femme fatale with ease, her paramours never divulged anything but pillow talk.
All of the supposed intelligence gained through these activities could be classified as less than worthless and nothing of substance was gained. Captain Ladoux was well aware of these facts yet he twice denied – once to the British Intelligence Authorities and then to the French Court – that she was in fact in the employ of the French Intelligence.
Inasmuch as Ladoux was aware that Mata Hari bore only the superficial resemblance to a spy and his refusal to divulge his role in the affair, she was unfairly condemned to death. The Germans had written her off as an ineffective agent whose pillow talk had produced little intelligence of value. Her military trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence, and it is probable that French authorities trumped her up as “the greatest woman spy of the century” as a distraction for the huge losses the French army was suffering on the western front. Her only real crimes may have been an elaborate stage fallacy and a weakness for men in uniform.
The old adage Play with fire and you are sure to get burnt applies in this case.
She was a rank amateur using what she did best – her sexuality – but ultimately in the game of espionage this only serves as the hors de oeuvres or the entree. Mata Hari did not possess the skill or wit to complete the other courses.
A woman with a limited repertoire of skills playing in the big league paid the ultimate price.
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