Mata Hari: Seductive Dancer and Alleged Spy

⚠️TW: mention of abuse, death/execution

And for the last week of february we have some more articles ready for you. The first one of this week is about Margaretha Geertrudia Zelle or as you might know her Mata Hari. 📝

She is known for all the rumours surrounding her life. The fact that she is an alleged spy caused people to tell many stories not only about her life but also how she faced death. Till this day it is still uncertain if she really was a spy or not, but nevertheless her life story is one of a strong and fierce woman who did not give up that easily. 💃🏻

Get to know more about her in the full article below!

Mata Hari (Margaretha Geertrudia Zelle) | *07-08-1876 | † 15-10-1917 | The Netherlands | Dancer, Alleged Spy

She was a dancer, mother, wife and lover, but most importantly of all: she was a spy. Mata Hari is remembered as one of the most prominent names in World War I espionage, for the rumour goes she would have fooled powerful men around her into giving her precious information which she could pass on to the enemy. But did she really? Was Mata Hari truly a deceitful woman who worked for the bad forces, or did she simply walk into a trap, set up by the authorities that desperately wanted her out of the way? 

Mata Hari was born as Margaretha Zelle on the 7th of August, 1876 in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. Her life was similar to that of fairly any other young girl, until her father abandoned her and her mother at age thirteen. As if this wasn’t bad enough, her mother died two years later, leaving Margaretha parentless. She was then sent away to study to become a teacher, but was later taken out of school because a teacher tried to take advantage of her. After living in The Hague for two years and wanting to have a more adventurous life outside of The Netherlands, she married Dutch colonial officer of Scottish descent, Rudolf McLeod. Together, they moved to Indonesia, but soon found out that they weren’t made for each other. McLeod was twenty-two years older than Margaretha and he was abusive towards her and their kids. He even unintentionally killed their son, after he contracted syphilis from one of his mistresses, which he infected Margaretha with and eventually, through hereditary transmission, would also infect the young boy. The doctor that treated him for this disease overdosed him with medicine, leading to the death of the two-year-old. This was the final straw for Margaretha and she decided to divorce her husband and return to The Netherlands.

During her stay in Indonesia, Margaretha had learned some Malay and Indonesian dance styles. She decided to use her dancing skills to her advantage and started performing exotic dances in Paris and Berlin. Her stage name came to be ‘Mata Hari’, which means ‘Eye of the Dawn’ in Malay. Mata quickly became a popular dancer. Her evenings were booked full by big venues and she rapidly made a name for herself within the industry. Along with her popularity came nasty rumours and gossip stories. One of the most prominent myths about her was that “she was nothing more than a prostitute and had an appetite for sex with powerful men”, while in reality she had developed a loathing for sex due to her unfortunate relationship with Rudolf McLeod. If she were to engage in any relationships, she would only do it to provide for her beloved daughter Louise. 

While Mata’s bookings had skyrocketed very fast in a short period of time, they declined even faster when the First World War came knocking on Europe’s door. Her performances in Berlin were cancelled, so she decided to move to Paris. However, this plan failed due to Germany declaring war to France. Eventually, she decided to go back to The Hague. After a few months she tried to travel back to France, but her ship was docked by British intelligence officers and every passenger aboard was questioned. Mata was judged ‘not above suspicion’, and the officers sent a message to the Counterespionage unit of the Ministry of War in France, which was headed by Captain George Ladoux, to inform them about Mata. When Mata was able to return to Paris and resume her normal lifestyle, Ladoux’ agents followed her everywhere, which Mata didn’t know. They were suspicious of Mata, because they had heard that she might be spying for the Germans, so they wanted to gather intelligence. However, the evidence they collected amounted to nothing.

So, now they could just leave her alone, right? That’s what you might think, but the Counterespionage unit thought differently. In 1916, Captain Ladoux placed an offer to Mata which went as follows: Mata would become a spy for the French, seducing high ranking German targets in neutral countries to capture military secrets. In exchange Mata would get 1.000.000 Francs, a huge sum of money. Mata accepted, because she could use the money for her family. However, Mata had no idea how to communicate in secret, who to target or where to start. She was told to wait for instructions, but she never received any. Hearing nothing but absolute radio-silence from Ladoux, Mata decided to go out on her own. After all, she had engaged in conversations with powerful men before and knew how to get these men to confide in her. And accordingly, she gathered important information about the Germans planning an attack on Morocco, a French colony at the time. Pleased with her success, Mata quickly reported this to Ladoux. However, Ladoux never responded. So, what was his plan? Why would he hire Mata as a spy for them to never speak to her again? While nothing is 100% certain, there is a theory: the French suspected Mata of being a German spy. French Captain Ladoux then came up with the plan of ‘employing’ her as their spy, but only really pretended to do so. He wanted to get closer to her to figure out what her position in the whole web of espionage was. But alas, he was unable to find any clear evidence hinting that Mata was indeed a German spy. And no evidence means no conviction, so he couldn’t arrest her.

However, it seems that the odds were against Mata Hari, because not long after this incident, the French intercepted a message from the Germans. This message requires some context. A few months earlier, Mata was offered 20.000 Francs if she accepted to work as a spy for the Germans. Mata refused, but allegedly still took the 20.000 Francs as compensation for the loss of her jewellery that intelligence officers took from her. The Germans were still resentful about this and now suspected her to be a French spy. Everyone had their own theories about Mata Hari, but one thing they all had in common: they wanted her out of the way. In order to do so, the Germans sent a secret message to Berlin, claiming that Mata was actually a German double agent. However, it is said that the Germans used a code language which they knew the French had already cracked. This meant that the French could intercept the message and figure out what it meant, which is exactly what they did. The French now had enough evidence to arrest Mata Hari. 

The Counterespionage unit issued an arrest warrant against Mata, with the charges being “espionage on behalf of Germany”. The question is: is this really what they believed? There is one theory that might answer this question: the French needed a scapegoat for the failures of the Nivelle Offensive, during which 40.000 French soldiers had died in one day; they needed someone to blame for this tremendous defeat. And there was no better scapegoat than a spy, better still; a foreign female spy of ‘loose morals’. So, the French claimed that Mata Hari, through her espionage, was the cause of the loss of so many innocent lives. 

Mata Hari was sentenced to death, to be carried out by firing squad on the 15th of October, 1917. It is said that she wore her finest clothes for the occasion and that she refused to wear a blindfold, and instead looked the soldier of the firing squad straight in the eyes. After allegedly blowing one of the soldiers a kiss, the squad started shooting, killing Mata Hari. Alas, the words she had spoken in the courtroom had not been able to save her: “A courtesan? I admit it. A spy? Never!”

It is still uncertain what exactly Mata’s role was in the field of espionage of World War I. Had she indeed used the art of seduction to pass on important information to the enemy, or was she an innocent woman, used by the authorities to enhance their own narrative? Well, whatever she was, she stayed her determined, proud self until the very end. A witness to Mata Hari’s death has said that she died with her head up, not the slightest change of expression on her face. One of the firing squad soldiers supposedly exclaimed: “By God, this woman knows how to die!” 


Author: Sam van Stokkom
Image: Fries Museum

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