Mata Hari: The Real Story

The name “Mata Hari” has become virtually synonymous with “espionage”. But despite her fame, it is not at all clear that the World War One exotic dancer was ever actually a spy for anyone.

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Mata Hari in one of her publicity photos

As an exotic dancer and performer (and a courtesan to much of Europe’s wealthy elite), Mata Hari gave out so many embellished tales of her life that today it is virtually impossible to sort them all out. It is known that her real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, and she was born in 1876 in Holland as the daughter of an oil investor. When Zelle was just 13, her father lost his fortune, and two years later her mother died. She was separated from her three younger brothers and was sent to live with her godfather. While attending a private school that trained girls to become teachers, the 16-year old had a sexual relationship with the school headmaster. Although it is not clear who seduced who, the incident seemed to teach young Zelle the power she could have over men.

After being expelled from the school, Zelle lived briefly with her uncle in The Hague. In 1895, she answered a “lonely hearts” advertisement in the newspaper from Captain Rudolph McLeod, a Dutch Army officer who had been stationed in the East Indies for the past 16 years and was now on leave in Holland. The attraction between the 18-year old Zelle and the 39-year old McLeod was instant; they were engaged after just six days and were married in July 1895, after which they both moved to the Dutch colony of Indonesia. Because McLeod was the well-off son of a minor nobleman, Zelle adopted the title of “Lady McLeod”.

Things quickly went sour, however. McLeod was a drunkard with a roving eye, and his nubile young wife also enjoyed the attention she got from other young Dutch Army officers. Both accused the other of infidelity. Things fell apart when the couple’s two-year old son died and their younger daughter became severely sick. (By some accounts, the children were poisoned by a housekeeper who had a grudge against McLeod; by other versions, the children had caught congenital syphilis from their philandering father.) Shortly after returning to Holland upon McLeod’s discharge in 1902, the marriage broke up, they divorced in 1906, and Zelle was left to fend for herself in The Hague.

Zelle had no education and no skills, but she soon made a living by using the one thing she did have–her dark-featured exotic good looks. Moving to Paris, the 27-year old first worked the streets as an ordinary prostitute. But she soon invented a new and more lucrative persona for herself, based on the European fascination with the far-off exotic Indonesian islands. She took the name “Mata Hari” (from a Malayan expression “Eye of The Day”, referring to the sun), and spun tales of being the daughter of an Indian Hindu temple dancer who had grown up in Indonesia. She claimed to be a priestess, and would perform scandalous “sacred dances” in Paris nightclubs, which were essentially stripteases. The effect was electric. The dark-eyed beauty had one string of paramours after another, who kept her supplied with money and luxuries.

In May 1914, Mata Hari began a six-month engagement at the Metrepol Club in Berlin. But when the First World War broke out in August, she found herself in a difficult position. Though Holland was officially neutral in the war, Mata Hari was viewed with suspicion, and her costumes and furs were confiscated by the German authorities. Fearing that she might be arrested or detained, she escaped back to The Hague with a wealthy Dutch businessman, who set her up in a lavish chateau.

What happened after that is still a matter of controversy amongst historians. According to the version later presented by the French prosecutors (and confirmed in 1970 by documents released from the German archives), Mata Hari was approached in 1914 by the German consul in Holland and offered a large sum of money to wheedle military information out of her many army officer lovers and pass it on to the embassy. Hari’s story at her trial was that she took the money from the Germans because she needed it (the war having wrecked her dancing career), but she never intended to pass on any information. British intelligence soon compiled their own dossier on her, noting that she spoke several languages, had many French, English and German military officers as companions, and, as a neutral Dutch citizen, was in a position to travel freely and pass secret information to the Germans. Two undercover security officers were assigned to keep an eye on her. By most accounts, the investigation produced abundant evidence of a long string of lovers (one of whom, amazingly, was a high official in the intelligence service), but found no definite proof that Mata Hari was passing secrets to the Germans.

Then in 1916, Hari was briefly detained for questioning by the British while passing through London. She now claimed that she had  been approached by the French intelligence service, who asked her to feed the Germans false information and to pass German secrets on to the French. The British didn’t believe her, but had no hard evidence against her, and let her go.

After this, Hari was, she claimed at her trial, sent by the French to Belgium, where she was to seduce the German military governor in an attempt to obtain secrets. Instead, she ended up in Spain with a German intelligence officer named Kalle. According to Hari, she was extracting information from him and passing it to the French: according to the French, she was passing Entente secrets on to Kalle. She returned to Paris, where the authorities decided to test her. Through one of her paramours, the French intelligence service allowed her to learn the identity of a spy who they suspected was a double agent, passing information on to both sides. Shortly later, the agent turned up dead. The French concluded that he had been killed by the Germans as a result of the information given to them by Mata Hari, and, in February 1917, the military police arrested her, melodramatically charging her with espionage that had resulted in over 50,000 battlefield deaths.

The trial took place before a military tribunal, in secret. It lasted only two days. According to some accounts, the defense was not allowed to question any of the witnesses. The official French intelligence file on Mata Hari was sealed for 100 years, and won’t be released until 2017. According to some who have claimed to have seen it, there is no hard evidence cited in the dossier to establish that the dancer actually passed any military secrets to the Germans.

Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad on the morning of October 15, 1917.

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