Behind the Veils: Revealing Mata Hari by Rebekah Villon

Part 4: Mata Hari the Spy


This is part four of a six part series exploring the life, loves, and legacy of the legendary Mata Hari, born Margaretha Geerdruida Zelle. In previous issues, we covered her tragic youth, a deeply troubled marriage, divorce, and her rise to fame and notoriety as an exotic dancer in Paris.

By 1914, Mata Hari had almost completed her next transformation: from dancer to courtesan. For the preceding decade, she had thrilled audiences throughout Europe with her sensuality and beauty, become wealthy and famous, and enjoyed the company of the most important men on the continent. While she longed for her daughter, still in the custody of her father, and denied the scandalous rumors spread about her in the Netherlands, this life of fame and fortune was what she had always wanted, and she enjoyed it to the fullest.

Perhaps that is why, when WWI broke out, she didn't sense the changing mood of the times and adopt a more moderate lifestyle. Even as travel became more and more difficult, and suspicion grew on all sides, she used the neutrality of the Netherlands and her Dutch citizenship to continue to move about the continent and visit her friends and lovers. She became deeply involved with a Russian pilot, young captain Vadim Maslov, calling him the love of her life.

In 1916, Maslov was wounded near the western front, and hospitalized there. Mata Hari, not realizing that her extensive movements had already attracted attention in France and Britain, applied for permission to visit him. Her application got her a meeting with agents of the Deuxième Bureau, who recruited her as a spy.

In retrospect, this seems like an unusual, and perhaps mistaken, effort. Before the war, Mata Hari had known and performed for German Crown Prince Wilhelm, as she had for many prominent people. During the war, he was made a senior general on the Western Front. French agents knew that he had a reputation as a playboy and womanizer, and hoped that Mata Hari could get valuable information, even if she had to seduce him. In reality, Wilhelm's role as a general was greatly overstated, as the Germans sought to improve his reputation at home and abroad, and he actually had a very small role in military decision-making. French agents offered Mata Hari one million francs in return for German military intelligence, an amount she would never have refused.

In 1916, as she traveled to Spain via Britain, she was detained and taken to London for questioning. During interrogation, she admitted to working for French intelligence services, and was allowed to continue her travels. In Madrid, she renewed her acquaintance with the German military attache, Major Arnold Kalle, and asked if he could arrange a meeting with Prince Wilhelm. She apparently employed all her powers of persuasion, seducing the attache, and eventually offering to share French military secrets with the German army.

Mata Hari would later say that she made that offer in an attempt to further her mission as a spy, to secure a meeting with Wilhelm, and that her loyalty was always to her adopted country of France. The truth is, she had no military secrets, and her chatter consisted mostly of gossip. Kalle had disclosed one minor piece of information to her, and she dutifully reported it back to her contact in France, but her message was sent by regular post as she had not been given any secure communication channels. This implies that the French didn't take her seriously as an asset, and it was later said she didn't reveal anything that couldn't be read in a newspaper.

Meanwhile, Kalle had become suspicious of her intent. He sent a message to Berlin, in which he praised the activities of a German spy thoroughly described and clearly identifiable as Mata Hari. He used a communication channel that he knew had been compromised by French intelligence, deliberately leading the French to believe that she was a double agent.

December 1916 was perhaps the only incident in which she may have shared information of any importance. The French War Ministry had given Mata Hari the names of six Belgian agents: five were suspected of being German spies, and one was suspected of being a double agent. A short time later, after she left Madrid for France, the Germans executed the double agent, and the French thought this was proof that she had disclosed their identities.

In February of 1917, she was arrested in Paris as a German spy, although there was no conclusive evidence that she had actually spied for either side. Mata Hari would claim that she was simply trying to complete the mission she had been given by the French, and earn her million francs.

The French military police began a publicity campaign against Mata Hari, once the toast of Parisian society. They exposed as a scandal that her real name was not Mata Hari, but actually Margaretha Zelle, and she was not really an Indonesian princess, but was secretly a Dutch citizen. They claimed that they found disappearing ink in her room, although she would say that it was part of her makeup. All the common deceptions of an exotic dancer were now exposed as sinister lies, and they claimed that she had cost the lives of 50,000 French soldiers.

It is probably this public campaign that has cemented the image of Mata Hari in the popular imagination as the master of espionage, the irresistible seductress, the cunning double agent. The scandalous story was repeated around the world.

Today, many historians believe that this public effort to defame and blame her was partly motivated by a desire to boost French morale. The spring of 1917 had seen failed strikes and offensives, mutinies and exhaustion. Portraying Mata Hari as a master of espionage allowed them to blame her for recent failures and setbacks, and she became a convenient scapegoat. The more she proclaimed her innocence, the more suspicious they were.


Join me in the next issue of HOWDO as we learn about the controversial trial and conviction of Mata Hari.

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