This Week in Military History: October 13th – 19th
October 15th: Mata Hari Executed
In order to become known as the ultimate symbol of a devious femme fatale, a woman would have to commit some seriously heinous and sultry acts. The kind of thing that would make a Bond girl blush and lead the world to the brink of annihilation. Or, maybe, you just have to be a low-level double agent with an erotic stage career, a wounded boyfriend, and a war-weary country in need of a good scapegoat. In the case of infamous World War One spy Mata Hari, the full truth may never be known. But, chances are, it was closer to the latter scenario than the former.
Mata Hari in 1906.
Born Margaretha Zelle on August 7th, 1876 in the Netherlands, the woman who would become known as Mata Hari lived the first decade of her life in relative luxury. But her father, a hat shop owner turned successful oil investor, went bankrupt in 1889, which led to his divorce from Margaretha’s mother who died two years later. In order to improve her circumstances, at age 18 Margaretha responded to an advertisement posted in a newspaper by a military officer stationed in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) looking for a wife. She wed Captain Rudolf MacLeod of the Dutch Colonial Army in Amsterdam before travelling back to his post in Java with him in 1897.
Captain Rudolf MacLeod, Zelle’s husband, with their son, Norman.
The marriage gave Margaretha access to Dutch high society and placed her personal finances on stable footing, but it was a less-than-happy union. By all accounts, Captain MacLeod was an abusive alcoholic who did nothing to hide the concubine he kept on the side. Those sources of unhappiness were deeply compounded when their two children, Jeanne and Norman, fell ill as a side effect of being treated for syphilis (which they likely caught while Margaretha was pregnant with them). Jeanne recovered, but Norman died in 1899 at age 2. Looking for a partial escape from her daily life, Margaretha took an interest in local history and traditions that led to her joining a dance troupe and taking the stage name “Mata Hari” (“eye of the day” in the regional Malay dialect) sometime in the late 1890’s.
Mata Hari, early in her career, wearing a Javanese-inspired costume.
Despite a lengthy separation and his continued ill-treatment of her, the marriage of Margaretha and Captain MacLeod lasted until they returned to the Netherlands and officially separated in 1902. Their divorce was finalized in 1906 with Margaretha receiving custody of Jeanne and MacLeod ordered to pay to support them. Not only did he never pay her a dime, he refused to return Jeanne after one of her visits with him. Margaretha did not have the money to fight for her daughter’s return in court, so Jeanne remained with her father until her death (probably as a long-term result of her earlier illness) at age 21 in 1919.
Young Jeanne MacLeod with her father.
Even before all of that unfortunate family drama unfolded, Margaretha’s career as a dancer began to take off. In 1903 she moved to Paris and started working as a performer. By the next year, her fame as an exotic dancer under her stage name began to flourish. On March 13th, 1905 her personal act debuted at the Musée Guimet (that’s right, her first headlined striptease was at a museum) and made her an overnight sensation. And the long-term mistress of the Musée’s founder, millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet. Claiming to be a Javanese princess, Mata Hari spent the next few years raking in money and fame from her risque stage shows and erotic photographs.
Mata Hari on stage, 1905.
By the time her stage career began to decline in the second decade of the twentieth century, Mata Hari had begun to transition from the performing lifestyle to a courtesan and socialite among the upper crust of Europe. After her final show, ten years to the day from her act’s debut, she spent years as the lover and mistress of a number of wealthy and/or politically connected individuals from all across the continent. But things got infinitely more complicated when World War One broke out in 1914.
Mata Hari during WWI.
As a Dutch citizen, and therefore a neutral party to the conflict, Mata Hari was able to freely travel across borders, even those of warring countries, which probably seemed like a major windfall at first. Then, in early 1916, she fell in love with Captain Vadim Maslov, a Russian pilot serving with the French on the Western Front. Soon thereafter he was shot down and sustained serious injuries that resulted in the loss of his sight. When Mata Hari asked to travel to the front in order to visit him, she was informed by the Deuxième Bureau (French military intelligence) that the only way they’d let her see Maslov was if she agreed to use her freedom of travel to spy for them. To sweeten the pot, the French offered her a further million francs to seduce and surveil one person in particular: Crown Prince Wilhelm, commander of one of the German Army Groups on the Western Front and the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Crown Prince Wilhelm.
That may sound like a seriously vital mission, and the French certainly thought it was. But the truth of the matter was that Prince Wilhelm’s role as an army commander was pretty much a nominal position. He’d never held any military command before the outbreak of the war and most of the actual work was done by the career officers on his staff. But he was still a major public figure and the heir to the German Imperial throne, so it stands to reason the French would want him spied on regardless of his strategic importance.
Prince Wilhelm (left) and his father, Kaiser Wilhelm II (center), visiting German troops in 1916.
Mata Hari took the mission and began a roundabout trip through various countries to carry it out. Things quickly fell apart when a ship she was travelling on stopped in Falmouth, England and Scotland Yard arrested her. Suspicious of her frequent travel between warring nations, they held her and interrogated her at length until she finally admitted she was working for French intelligence. When the British tried to confirm this, for some reason the French neither confirmed nor denied it and asked the British to send her on to Spain.
Scotland Yard during WWI.
In late 1916, Mata Hari arrived in Madrid to meet with a German military attache and ask for a meeting with Prince Wilhelm. As part of her negotiations to see the prince, she offered to sell French military secrets to the Germans. As her access to any such intel was likely slim to none, the question of whether she made that offer out of greed or as a false promise to trick them remains unanswered. Regardless, when the French intercepted and decoded German messages claiming Mata Hari was a double agent for them, they considered her turned.
Mata Hari shortly after her arrest in 1917.
On February 13th, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris. She was charged with spying for the Germans and personal responsibility for the deaths of 50,000 soldiers. Quite the serious body count, considering they had no evidence other than the intercepted German messages without any specific examples of information she passed to them or how it had been used to kill so many people. But her history as a sex symbol and woman in show business, particularly one with a falsely claimed ethnicity, was frequently brought up by prosecutors during her trial, which began on July 24th.
Mata Hari’s mugshot.
By the summer of 1917, France was growing extremely weary of the war. A major operation (the Nivelle Offensive) had recently failed and, as a result, nearly half their troops mutinied in anger and despair. Workers at home were striking en mass. The government was looking for an easy target to draw some of the public and military’s ire and Mata Hari made for a good one, so they stacked the deck as best they could for her trial. The lead prosecutor was Captain Pierre Buchardon, the same officer who had interrogated her after her arrest and an avowed hater of “immoral” women. Mata Hari’s contact in the Deuxième Bureau, Captain George Ladoux, fabricated evidence against her. And her attorney, Édouard Clunet, was not allowed to cross examine any witnesses or even directly question any of his own.
Photo of Mata Hari on trial.
For her part, Mata Hari never denied that she offered to sell French secrets to the Germans. Her defense was that she only intended to pass them false or inconsequential information in order to deceive them and gain their trust. She never wavered in her assertion that her loyalty remained with France, her adopted homeland. And, as far as her personal and career history, she famously declared herself, “A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!” Fine words, and perhaps the truth, but she never had much chance to prove it. Even the Dutch government refused to intervene and her beloved Captain Maslov, deeply embittered by his blindness, stated he didn’t care if she lived or died and refused to testify.
Newspaper article in Le Petit Parisien announcing Mata Hari’s execution.
Unsurprisingly, Mata Hari was convicted and sentenced to death. Early on October 15th, 1917, the 41-year-old former exotic dancer blew a kiss to the twelve young soldiers from the Fourth Zouave Regiment clad in khakis and red fezzes lined up in front of her as a firing squad. She refused a blindfold. They executed her shortly before dawn. And while history has never fully vindicated her, nor come anywhere near proving the French government justified (Buchardon even later admitted the case lacked any real evidence), it has certainly solidified Margaretha “Mata Hari” Zelle as the quintessential femme fatale in the annals of espionage.