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Mata Hari: Truth & Lies

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 2

Eye of Dawn

Part 2 of 2

Exotic dancer Mata Hari created sensation and controversy even after her untimely (and unjust) death before a French firing squad at the age of 41 in October 1917.  Many aspects of her life, particularly about the true degree of her “spying” or of her “double-agent” status are still debated. 

In brief, Mata Hari was a Dutch woman (Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, born in 1876) who married an abusive man, Rudolf MacLeod, and moved to Java.  While there her two children were poisoned, one of whom died.  She and her husband returned to Europe, they separated, and Mata went on to become the most celebrated exotic dancer of her time.  However, she was accused of being a double-agent during World War I; she was found guilty in a military hearing and was executed in 1917.

Some Truth
Mata’s love and a French firing squad killed her.  She was not the calculating, emotionless, seductive spy of legend.  She was an entertainer, and a woman with a soft heart fast losing both

Mata Hari (1910)
her looks and her fame.  She had one thing to fall back upon, and that was her sexual prowess which was apparently quite spectacular – even in her last few years of “decline” Mata Hari was still a celebrity and was still highly sought after by men.  Her “courtesan skills” (whatever those particular talents were) commanded a good enough price that even though her stage career was ending she lived well (as is evidenced by her frequent trips abroad, extended hotel stays, etc.).  She had the added luxury of not answering to any man, either – after Rudolf's dominance she almost certainly would have never put herself in that position again.

Before the morass of dissembling that killed her, Mata met a man nearly half her age with whom she was completely taken.  Unlike all of her other paramours this man could not afford her in the traditional sense.  He was not moneyed, not particularly well-connected politically, but perhaps for the first time in her life Mata Hari had someone in whom she was totally invested (all other things either being lost or taken from her). 

Mata was head over heels, though, when she fell for this Russian officer named Vladimir Masloff, generally called “Vadim”.  He was 21 when he met the 40-year-old Mata Hari in 1916. He had dark hair, a long nose; he was a slender and handsome. The usually controlled Mata Hari was recklessly passionate about him.  Part of the attraction for the two might have been the fact that Vadim was about the same age Mata’s dead son, Norman, would have been then had he lived.  Perhaps Vadim brought out a more maternal side to her character.  Vadim’s attraction to Mata may have involved a tremendous ego stroke (being the lover of a celebrity who was desired by so many rich and powerful men). Vadim, a soldier, had to go back to war, and he was gassed by the Germans.  He lost his left eye, wearing a patch over it for the rest of his life.  His gassing, though, threatened the vision in his good right eye as well, and it weakened over time.

As her history notes, Mata was (needlessly) ashamed of her small breasts.  In her intimate moments with her lovers, she always kept them covered.  Even when sexually engaged she did not strip completely naked; her breast cups stayed put. She came up with an excuse for this constant hiding of her breasts: she said that Rudolf, in one of his fits of abuse, had bitten off both of her nipples [This explanation played well with her paramours – it was both heart-wrenching and endearing at the same time.  Any man would want to only treat such a damaged woman well]. 

Vadim and Mata were now connected by “disability” (his very real eye loss, her “nipple loss” which Vadim believed unquestioningly).  She was traumatized over his war injuries.  He was in danger of losing the sight in his other eye; Mata determined she would find the money to support them both comfortably. To that end (with her stage career dwindling to almost nothing) she escalated her courtesan efforts.

Vadim recuperated in a military hospital near Vittel, a place officially in the war zone.  Civilians required special permission to travel there. Mata Hari, while seeking that permission, fatefully met Georges Ladoux (later uncovered as a French double-agent).  He would be largely responsible for Mata’s undoing.  He was an army captain charged with organizing French counter-espionage. He was a plump, square-faced man who smoked a pipe and who slicked his hair back with oil.  Suspicions had already been raised about Mata’s possibly being a German spy (because of her visits to Germany in 1914 to work the music halls).  She was having problems securing permission to visit Vadim in his recovery hospital in Vittel.  A friend recommended she go see Georges Ladoux and plead her case with him. When they met, Ladoux questioned Mata intensively about her political position about the conflict between France and Germany.  Mata replied that she was a Dutch citizen and was neutral in the matter.  The Netherlands was not involved as a belligerent in the conflict; she assured him, though, as Paris was her home she sided with France.  

Allegedly, he then asked (knowing of her fame, her connections, and her freedom of travel) if she would consider spying on the Germans for France. Mata gave no answer, and she was probably stunned at the suggestion.  She told Ladoux she would think about his proposal; to grease the wheels, though, Ladoux told Mata her permission to visit Vittel would be approved hastily and without question (thus displaying his power in matters important to Mata). 

Espionage carried the ultimate penalty if caught: death.  Mata, however, thought about the big payoff; it was an extremely lucrative business, even considering the risks.  She wanted nothing more at this point than to take care of herself and Vadim without worry.  Spying could do that.  Mata also felt guilty about how she had been earning her money while in a relationship with Vadim.  If she had big money she could (in her words) “avoid deceiving him with other men”.  The temptation had to be terrific for her – she obviously weighed the number of men she would have to sleep with versus a one-off espionage trek that could pay her upwards of a million francs.  Mata’s naïve decision was to finally accept Ladoux’s proposal, work one big coup, collect her huge payoff, and then retire quietly married to Vadim.

Because of Mata’s international appeal, she had lovers and former almost everywhere she went.  One of those was a businessman in Brussels, a man named Wurfbein.  His company provided food that supplied the German army. He had promised to introduce her to General Moritz Ferdinand von Bissing (who oversaw the German occupation of Belgium) the next time she was in town.  Mata, with Ladoux, formed a plan for her to visit Brussels, make von Bissing’s introduction, and then seduce him.  This is the classic femme fatale image, the one for which Mata Hari is infamous.  She was sure she could get von Bissing to divulge military secrets in the afterglow of sex with the great Mata Hari. On a personal level, she also hoped her intended liaison with von Bissing would allow her a gateway to renew her old affair with German Crown Prince William (who had left quite an impression on her).

It was while using the circuitous route to Brussels that Mata was picked up by the British and accused of spying for Germany.  They claimed she “looked like” the German spy Clara Benedix (who may not even have been a real person, let alone a spy).  The British (like the French later) jumped to a baseless conclusion about Mata, surmising that the spy name “Clara Benedix” (absolutely no connection to Mata Hari) was an alias for “Margaretha Zelle”.  As soon as Mata’s boat docked in Falmouth, she and her several travel steamer trunks (and if she were truly on a “spy” mission it seems absurd she would carry so much with her) were taken off the ship and brought to The Yard. 

During her questioning Mata insisted she was innocent of any wrongdoing.  She averred she was not “Clara Benedix”, and finally the information came from Mata that she was “spying for the French”. Scotland Yard packed her off to the London Savoy while they awaited a written response from Ladoux whether or not she was working for French intelligence.  Neither confirming nor denying her true “mission” Ladoux responded simply by telling the British to return Mata to Spain (from where she had departed; she would find her way back to Paris from there).  A chronicler recorded that a frustrated and angry Mata Hari returned to Spain “without instructions, needing money, and unable to get to Holland and Belgium and von Bissing.”

Mata still sought funding for her retirement with the convalescing Vadim.  She met and romanced German Major Arnold Kalle. She tried to get secrets from him for which she hoped France would pay handsomely.  Kalle later claimed he was suspicious of her; he knew of her trouble with the British; the intelligence community was not as secretive as it liked to believe.  He gave her information already circulating as rumor in the military intelligence community: he bragged he personally was spearheading the logistics of having a submarine drop off some German and Turkish officers in the Moroccan French zone.  Mata left Kalle’s bed thinking she had just been handed some great piece of intelligence.  She immediately wrote to Ladoux of her news.  Unfortunately, her revelation was already known to French counter-espionage.  The story was stale; it seemed perhaps Kalle was testing her.  If his intelligence about the submarine got back to him (and in a close-knit intelligence community, it would), she was indeed spying for France, and no German could trust her [Kalle got wind of Mata’s “tattling” soon enough, thus confirming his suspicions].

Mata, in her part of the give-and-take of espionage, gave Kalle “important knowledge” about French secrets.  She told him France resented Britain’s direction of the Allied effort.  She advised the Allies planned to launch an offensive in the spring.  As it was, there were no secrets here – the “important knowledge” Mata imparted to Kalle was material she had gleaned from newspapers and the constant rumor mill of wartime. Kalle immediately knew her information was useless.  

At their next assignation Mata tried again to get sensitive information from Kalle. By this time he was onto her, and he angrily told her that he knew she had passed on his submarine information. He knew this, he obliquely claimed, because Germany had “the key to their radio cipher”.  [The part about the “radio cipher” was all bluff.  Kalle got the report of Mata’s conveying his intel via regular underground channels].  Kalle then thought he’d toy with her as, by this time, she could not be trusted with anything.  He fed her a complete line of false information which she dutifully trotted back to Ladoux for review, still hoping for her payoff.

Once she returned to Paris in May 1916, Ladoux would not see her, making himself unavailable.  When he finally consented to keep an appointment he refused to pay her, claiming her information was of no value, and she would have to do better to earn money from French intelligence. Mata pondered over this, and decided she could do better.  She felt she had the boudoir skills to seduce someone higher up than Kalle in the German military food-chain, someone who could give her real intelligence and not just rumors and half-truths.  While she waited for Ladoux to give her another shot, he and his cronies were busy mulling over coded messages sent from Kalle to his colleagues in Berlin and back again.  It was on the return transmission that the French group intercepted the communiqué. 

One of the messages from Kalle read, “H 21 informs us: Princess George of Greece, Marie Bonaparte, is using her ‘intimate relations’ with Briand [Aristide Briand, then prime minister of France] to get French support for her husband’s access to the Greek throne.  She says Briand’s enemies would welcome further defeats in the war to overthrow him.  Britain has political and military control of France. French are afraid to speak up. General offensive planned for next spring.”

The message's content was pointless as the “information” was the sort of gossipy thing making the rounds and easily dismissed.  Nothing in it was of any merit or significance to the French except for the identity of the operative designated as “H 21”.  That particular item is what had French counter-intelligence taking a look at Mata Hari.  It seemed as if she already possessed a code name recognizable by the Germans.  This meant, at least from this missive, she had started spying for Germany before she agreed to spy for France [This message seems Kalle’s doing solely, and its only purpose was to cast suspicions on Mata Hari with whom he was angry at her attempts to deceive him.  The message was transmitted in a code the French had already broken, and the Germans knew this.  It was meant to be intercepted and easily read].

Georges Ladoux and French intelligence were under tremendous  pressure to catch spies in their midst [Had anyone simply turned and looked at Ladoux a big fish would have been caught quickly and Mata  Hari would have died of old age].  The deciphered German messages, with clear German knowledge they would be easily and readily deciphered by the French, could only be meant to do one thing: get rid of Mata Hari.  It is not clear just what level her involvement with the German government was, but it probably was non-existent (barring her sexual encounters with German officers and men of power). 

What is known for a fact, however, is she did make an idiot out of Kalle (who almost certainly, even though he originally gave her stale intelligence, was embarrassed by the situation.  He was likely officially reprimanded for his indiscretion as well). These communications put Mata Hari under a glaring spotlight, and Ladoux now had an easy target to divert attentions away from his agency’s internal rats (namely, Ladoux). The Germans probably cared nothing for Mata Hari’s activities one way or the other – all that is certain is she embarrassed one of them.  And by December 1916 the French were certain they had something in Mata Hari, something wrong.

On February 13, 1917, the French arrested Mata Hari for espionage.  Her primary interrogator was Captain Pierre Bouchardon, a military prosecutor, and she was questioned several times.  Mata, although it did her no good in the end, at least had the presence of mind to give this man the straight story of her background.  As she had told the British in 1916, she was innocent.  She denied being a double-agent: “I am innocent.  Someone is playing with me — French counter-espionage, since I am in its service, and I have acted only on its instructions.”

She was held in a dingy prison while awaiting trial.  Bouchardon interrogated her an astonishing seventeen times during the four months between her arrest and the start of her trial.  Mata was fastidious in her personal hygiene (a rare trait in people then), and her dignity suffered greatly. The prison had no bathing facilities, and she was occasionally given a small bowl with which to clean herself.  She was permitted no clean changes of clothing.  She was allowed 15 minutes a day for solitary exercise outside of her cell.  She was purposefully isolated, for her own protection, from the other prisoners.  Although it was in her own best interests to stay out of general population Mata felt the isolation keenly.  Her arrest was also kept a secret from the public.  She was not allowed to write to her lover Vadim, still in the military hospital. 

Between her interrogations, Mata wrote to Bouchardon complaining of the severe conditions in the prison.  In one note she wrote, “You have made me suffer too much. I am completely mad. I beg of you, put an end to this. I am a woman. I cannot support [what is] above my strength.” In another: “I beg of you, stop making me suffer in this prison. I am so weakened by this system and the cell is driving me mad. I have not done any espionage in France...Let me have provisional liberty. Don't torture me here.”

Mata’s 74-year-old attorney, Edouard Clunet, visited her almost daily.  He was the only visitor allowed, and he had once been a lover of Mata’s.  He was genuinely fond of her and had been her lawyer for over ten years.  Unfortunately, Clunet’s expertise lay in contract law and corporate law – he was ill-equipped to handle an espionage case, certainly with its death penalty rider. 

Mata’s espionage arrest was only made public just before her trial started, and she was held largely incommunicado the whole time.  When court began its session on July 24, 1917, an enormous crowd showed up to see the famous sex symbol.  They piled into the gallery and filled the street.  When Mata arrived she probably was a disappointment.  She did not wear any flowing, theatrical gowns.  Instead, they saw an overweight diva of dusky skin and dark hair that did her best to appear presentable with what she was given.  She appeared in a blue dress and a hat with a delicate, diaphanous lace mantilla sweeping across her face and flowing down her shoulders. A rather odd affectation was Mata wore gloves on her hands and kept them stuffed inside a large fur muff, despite the sweltering summer heat in the court. 

This was a military hearing and not a civilian one.  All the court assessors and officers were military personnel (the assessors were all career military men either at or past middle age). The very first act of the court, at the request of the prosecution, was to hold the trial in secret, and this was agreed. The gallery was cleared of the public. 

The case against Mata was flimsy.  French suspicions of her were only aroused after the British had nicked her and sent her back to Spain in mid 1916.  She had been under surveillance since shortly after she returned, humiliated, from Britain.  The prosecution made much of Mata’s “clientele” overwhelmingly being military officers in hopes of sowing a seed of sedition (rather than admit, perhaps, that Mata was a sensuous woman who liked men in uniform). 

The intercepted radio messages were brought out; the claim is they identified Mata Hari as the mysterious Agent “H 21” [They do no such thing – all identifications linking “H 21” to Mata Hari are supposition alone and not fact.  The messages’ text gives no clear indicator it is she; the ambiguity was perhaps intentional].  The prosecution called five witnesses to the stand; all simply corroborated the opening statement and presented no proof of anything. Under the bizarre military court rules of the day Mata’s attorney, Clunet, could not cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.  Nor was he allowed to directly question his own witnesses when it was his turn to present his case on Mata’s behalf. The prosecution directly questioned defense witnesses, and the defense was allowed to cross-examine.

One defense witness, however, under the gun from the prosecution, Henry de Marguérie, was a high-ranking official in the foreign ministry, but he refused to slander Mata Hari on the stand.  He testified he had known her for fourteen years and had been a lover of hers. He said he had visited her shortly after returning to Paris from fighting in the war, but they had not talked of the conflict at all during their tryst.  The prosecutor asked, with mock incredulity, “Are you asking us to accept, sir, that you spent three days constantly in each other’s company and not a word escaped your lips of the question which obsesses us all, the war?”  De Marguérie replied flatly, “I am a very busy man, and I am obsessed with the war night and day. For just that reason, it was a great relief to spend three days talking of philosophy, Indian art, and love. It may seem unlikely to you but it is the truth.” He also volunteered, “Nothing has ever spoiled the good opinion that I have of this lady.” Before he left the courtroom, de Marguérie made a clear show of ostentatiously bowing to Mata Hari.

Considering the restrictions on the defense (basically an inability to truly mount a defense) it is no shock the verdict of guilty was rendered.  The sentence of death was expected.  What is truly absurd, however, is Mata Hari was also required to pay court costs.  She was almost catatonic upon hearing the sentence and she stared fixedly off intro space.  Edouard Clunet wept openly beside her.

Mata returned to her isolation cell to await her execution.  She was not given her date of death; in a perverse twist of good intentions the French justice system felt it was more humane not to advise a death row inmate of an execution date for fear of causing greater anxiety in the prisoner.  This is almost sadistic.  Mata spent her last months in prison hoping for a reprieve.  She was also completely and understandably depressed.  She gained even more weight from the starchy prison food and the enforced lack of exercise.

Mata, of course, did not know her execution date.  The custom was for the guards to approach the condemned’s cell, making as much of a racket as possible (clearing of throats, slamming of doors, stamping of feet) so the prisoner would be wide awake by the time they got to the cell door and hopefully easier to handle.  In the early morning hours of October 15, 1917, the detail went through its noisy approach maneuver for Mata Hari. The group found Mata unmoved by their noise; she had been given a sedative the night before as she was having trouble sleeping.  The guards entered her cell and roused her.  She was advised her petition for clemency had been denied, and “the time for expiation has come”.  Mata screamed in disbelief, “It's not possible! It's not possible!” Two nuns who had come to know and care about Mata Hari tried to comfort to her.  She composed herself and told one of them, “Don't be afraid, sister. I shall know how to die.”

Mata Hari faced death head on.  She refused the customary blindfold. Twelve rifles pointed at her, she blew a kiss, the order to fire was given, shots rang out, and Mata Hari was dead.  One of the bullets hit her in the heart and death was instantaneous. In the true tradition of overkill, custom required that a French officer administer the last insuring death shot.  An officer strode up to her body on the ground, and plugged her behind the ear with his pistol. [The absurdity of this action is incomprehensible – if this man was the “Final Solution” why bother with the firing squad spectacle in the first place? Much time and effort could have been spared by his simply walking up to her and shooting her in the head himself].

Between Truth and Lies is the Unknown
It is surprising that Mata’s early life, up to and including her peak performance years, is clearly and accurately documented (despite Margaretha Zelle’s confusing creation of the mystical über sex symbol Mata Hari and all the fabrications that went along with it).  Many trivial details about her childhood are known, for example: her father, on her sixth birthday, presented her with a beautiful miniature carriage that could be pulled by two goats.

Gone is the memory of the battered wife and the successful celebrity exotic dancer.  What remains of her memory are the allegations of espionage, the part of her life that led to her execution (in all likelihood a gross miscarriage of justice).  But this critical part of her history, really involving only the last roughly six months of her life, is the one most clouded by rumor, innuendo, lies, and confusion.  Clarity about some of the details will never be gained.  However, if one takes a dispassionate look at a time line and simple facts reasonable conclusions can be drawn about what happened to Mata Hari. 

First, as pointed out, Mata’s life was well-documented, at least everything up to her “espionage” days.  The Great War started in 1914, yet no one was looking at Mata Hari then as a spy.  It would seem she, being the adventuress opportunist, would have been approached early in the conflict by either side (she was well-known to both German and French men equally, she had complete freedom of movement to cross borders, etc.).  Mata Hari would have made a great spy simply because her high profile would have made her one of the “hiding in plain sight” elite.  It would have been exactly her inability to be considered as a spy that would have made her a prime candidate. 

Yet this did not happen.  Mata continued her bed hopping and stage performing (a slightly out-of-shape 40-year-old Mata with an oversized, overstuffed – for her – breast

Mata Hari entertaining soldiers (1916)
covering can be seen in a 1916 photograph entertaining a group of soldiers who seem only too happy to be in her presence).  She only came under suspicion almost two years into the war, in 1916. So, what happened in 1916 to bring Mata Hari to the attention of three governments?

Vadim was one of the things that affected Mata.  She wanted to “fix” him (with whom she had fallen in love in early 1916).  Her days of commanding exorbitant gifts as a courtesan were fast drawing to a close, and although Mata still had her benefactors they were fewer and less well-heeled.  Mata wanted to retire with her lover Vadim (ideally, she hoped for marriage) in peace and security. To do that she needed money, not just the few francs of a courtesan or of a casual prostitute but a serious “retirement” nest egg. 

Georges Ladoux was already operating as a double-agent from the best possible cover – as the head of French counter-espionage – when he met Mata Hari.  It seems perfectly reasonable, knowing of Mata’s financial distress and her agonizing over Vadim, that he would have tapped the vulnerable woman as a recruit.  Plus, he had the advantage of literally holding her fate in his hands at that moment – he was the one who could approve or deny her travel visa to see Vadim in the hospital. 

This is where two schools of thought diverge.  One group believes Mata never engaged in any espionage of any kind, and another group has over-inflated her spying skills to the point of her being the all-time greatest female secret agent ever. 

Neither is correct. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Mata Hari was not innocent; Mata was involved in espionage. But she was not guilty of the heavy charges of conflated espionage thrust upon her.  Mata Hari was guilty of being a spy – and a very bad one, to make matters worse.  There can be no doubt that she found Ladoux’s offer to spy for a serious reward very enticing.  It is also most likely that she entered into an agreement for “a one-off” (a single act) that would net her a large bonus, one sufficient to go off quietly with Vadim.

It is reasonable to believe that Mata accepted Ladoux’s offer and came up with the Brussels travel plans herself as she knew the businessman Wurfbein and thought he might make the introduction she needed to von Bessing.  She then could gain some secret nugget to bring back to Ladoux, collect her reward, and live happily ever after. What the naïve Mata Hari did not know is covert work has a “no exit” clause.  Once one is in, one is in, and there is no turning back, except through death. Mata’s continued servitude would have been guaranteed as shown by Ladoux’s refusal to pay her for what she did do on his behalf, demanding more and greater pieces of intelligence – he would have never cut her loose.

The British, however, had other plans.  The British already suspected Mata of working for the Germans at the time of her ignominious arrest and her return to Spain in May 1916 [She did not, nor planned to, work for the Germans; she had ample opportunity and did not avail herself of it.]  Mata’s movements, though harmless in her capacity as a globetrotting exotic dancer, were under scrutiny.  She was from a neutral country, lived in France, and regularly fraternized with Germans.  There was something there that did bear watching, and the British were right to keep an eye on her [although she had done nothing up to that time.  In fact, though not known then, their detention of her in May 1916 actually thwarted her first attempt at spying].

Her admission to the British of working for French intelligence is probably what sealed Mata Hari’s fate.  It is almost certain that in that one moment the Dutch Margaretha Zelle did not make the conscious decision to distance herself from the exotic, seductive, and possibly “treacherous” Mata Hari.  There can be no doubt that Mata saw the ridiculous allegation as both flattering (“What, l’il old me, a spy?), titillating (“A spy? Hmmm…I never thought of that”), or lending her character an extra nudge of intrigue (“Mata Hari is a spy!!”).  Such publicity is priceless.  Being a suspected spy for Mata would have been the shot in the arm her career needed at the moment.  Although the 40-year-old was still famous she was not sought so much for her stage work as for her horizontal activities by then. She would not have adequately considered the consequences of even the allegation of espionage (one of the few crimes during war-time for which swift and decisive action was taken).

There are those who think Mata was already in German service when the Brits picked her up (already a top-notch spook).  It is alleged she met her German controller, Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, in Madrid as soon as she was released from British custody.  Others claim they never met.  As a bit of back story on her possible involvement as a German spy prior to Madrid in 1916, it is necessary to revisit the start of the war.

Mata’s star was waning certainly by 1912.  She was 36 and being upstaged by younger women.  She made every effort to keep her persona in the entertainment milieu.  In May 1914, she played a German music hall.  Some members of her audience thought her act was “indecent” (a complaint lodged against the feisty Lola Montez on more than one occasion as well) and complained to local authorities.  A police officer named Griebel went to see for himself.  He was completely smitten with Mata and made a date with her instead of running her out of town. 

In another version of this story, it is Griebel’s superior, Traugott von Jagow, who became Mata Hari's lover. This version claims von Jagow headed up Germany’s espionage efforts, and it was he who gave her orders to spy on France. This of course makes not much sense: in 1914 Mata Hari had everything she needed.  She gave her body freely (sort of – it cost in the end), she would disrobe (except for the bra) at the drop of a hat – there was no incentive for her.  She was still sought after, she still entertained, and she had plenty of money. 

Furthermore she could not be “ordered” to do anything unless compelled.  As Vadim was not a part of her life yet her only other valued person was her daughter Non, and she was in Holland.  Thus, she had no initmate relationship liabilities to threaten her with for anyone wanting to exploit her. 

People of conspiratorial/sensationalizing inclinations have managed to create fantastically elaborate scenarios where Mata Hari went to a German “spy school” in Antwerp, Belgium [This is ridiculous on its face. Any such “school” would have no doubt been located firmly and safely within Germany’s borders – Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt – why Antwerp?]  The absurdities pile on top of each other quickly in these stories: the academy was run by a stereotypically Nordic Valkyrie who was apparently part goblin as well as teacher.  She was described as “plump but physically unprepossessing”.  She allegedly had the stamina of a mountain goat that allowed her to work twenty hours straight [working on what is not clear.  Certainly her students had to sleep sometime]. She was also reportedly a stern disciplinarian who was respectfully nicknamed “The Red Tiger” and “Tiger Eyes” by her awestruck students. 

Those who believe Mata Hari was guilty of the highest levels of espionage think she spent 15 weeks in this school training, and from there her code name of “H 21” was assigned.  In this spy school she learned about “codes, ciphers, communicative dodges, the study of chemicals (their use and manufacture), and memorization of maps, charts, and photographs, as well as models of enemy arms (always in the process of revision and elaboration).” Finally, the students were allegedly given a parting warning upon their graduation – they “were also sternly warned of the fate of ‘fool-spies’, those who go over to the other side and are dealt with ruthlessly” [laying the ground work for a ridiculously contrived German conspiracy to have the French execute Mata Hari on their behalf once it was learned by them she was also spying for the French].  That’s a big load of material to absorb in 15 weeks, and although Mata Hari probably had the intelligence to do it, it never happened [Mata claimed during her interrogations she never attended such an institution (if it even existed).  Secondarily, this could not possibly have been a very secure spy school if its curriculum was so easily and ably identified in detail].

Simple deductive reasoning tears this story apart. A Serbian killed Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne on July 28, 1914, and Austria declared war on Serbia the same day.  Russia, siding with Serbia and assured of French support in the coming conflict, mobilized against Austria on July 29-July 30. 

Mata Hari was still in Germany.  On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia, and when they learned of France's support of Russia’s aggression they declared war on France as well (on August 3). 

Why would a German spy school exist in Antwerp, over four months before war broke out?  Did Germany have the prescience to predict the need for spies that soon and hastily opened a school in Antwerp?  Or, did the school already exist?  It had to in order for Mata to attend it for “15 weeks” as the story goes. 

However, simple math and Mata’s known movements prevent her being tucked away anywhere for 15 weeks in 1914 before the war broke out.  Mata Hari was in Germany for sure on May 23, 1914, because she performed at a music hall where she was accused of indecency.  Fifteen weeks are 105 days, and 105 days from May 23 (any year of one’s choosing) is September 28.  Germany invaded neutral Belgium on August 4 [It is inconceivable Germany could have operated a spy school there, invading the country and running the risk of both exposure and destruction of its resource].
 
Mata’s presence in the fiercely ethnocentric war environment of Germany was not safe for her.  Because of her years in Paris, she would have been considered French, and the enemy, to the average German. 

To pound the final nail into the Antwerp/spy school/Mata Hari fallacy: Mata Hara left Germany (not Belgium, Germany) in haste on Aug 6, 1914 (almost nine weeks before her  alleged “graduation” from “spy school” would have been possible!).  The dates can be confirmed because she went straight to neutral Switzerland where she was turned away with a passport problem; the Swiss sent her back to Germany.  She managed to find her way to Amsterdam, then on to Paris, then back to the Netherlands, and then finally back to Paris.  It is this restless shuttling that led to her coming under suspicion later by the British

Georges Ladoux, later, after Mata had been “made” by the German officer Kalle authorized surveillance of her.  Mata quickly recognized she was being followed by a tail; she angrily confronted Ladoux about this who, of course, denied she was being watched by the French.  Ladoux did not believe Mata was spying for Germany, although conspiracy “theorists” will say he did – he was doing the smart thing in the intelligence community by keeping an eye on his operatives. 

And Mata was an operative, although she had only produced two pieces of bad information from Kalle, and was paid for neither. She was agitating for more assignments, Kalle had his wrist slapped for divulging “secrets” to Mata between the sheets, and getting her out of the way seemed the most expedient thing to do. The Germans’ fake messages about “H 21” might have been no more than Kalle trying to get even with Mata for getting him in trouble [It would be nice to think he wouldn’t want her executed, but his career was on the line.  The chips would fall where they may]. 

Ladoux’s counter-espionage group, as recorded, was under tremendous pressure to ensure there were no traitors in their midst.  Ladoux needed a distraction from his activities, and Mata Hari was perfect.  She had procured information and brought it to him at his request.  This is the root of spying.  Ladoux, though, was a double-agent, actively undermining whatever side he felt couldn’t pay enough.  He was later arrested for suspicion of espionage, but at that time, any diversion would do.  His counter-espionage unit could then hold up the sacrificial Mata Hari as a shining example of their diligence in ferreting out spies.

Mata was a spy: she was a spy for France.  She was also a scapegoat for Ladoux.  She was not guilty in a French court for crimes against the French state.  She took information from a German and gave it to the French.  That is not spying, that is “intelligence gathering” (in the convoluted double-speak of the trade). However, had Germany gotten hold of her she would have been convicted easily and rightfully of spying (gathering intelligence from one of their officers and giving it to their enemythat is classic spying).

So, in short, was Mata Hari a spy?  Yes – from either France’s or Germany’s perspectives Mata Hari was a spy.  She, however, is completely innocent of any crime against France, however, since she was not giving up information to the enemy (Germany).  Her cock-and-bull stories to Kalle, as known, came from rumors and newspaper items, hardly state security breaches. Mata Hari was guilty of spying, but not against France. She was put to death for political reasons (protecting Ladoux, and she poked the bear that was Germany).

Here is how one learns quickly if any sort of intrigue or case is politically sensitive or motivated by politics: any file, regardless of its contents, that gets sealed under the “100 Year Rule” is suspect.  The Jack the Ripper file was sealed for 100 years, meaning it was not meant to be made available to the public until a century after the last murder. 

Why do jurisdictions do this?  It is done to avoid embarrassment for principals and their families and colleagues who might be involved in, or named in, the case history.  The presumption is after 100 years no one can be slandered by the file’s contents as they would be deceased. 

In the Ripper file, there were communiques in it from Queen Victoria and allegations about royal family and staff involvement (too complex for this discussion, but none are true).  However, although none of the royals so named were guilty of the murders, other “little” scandals involving the Prince of Wales were uncovered, and it was this that required the file’s sealing.  When the file was opened to the public finally it was almost useless – most of the key material had somehow been scavenged out for souvenirs (including some of the original photographs, the fake “Jack the Ripper” letters to the press, etc.). 

[The 100 Year Rule was also applied to John F. Kennedy’s personal papers.  They are not meant for public viewing until 2063 (when in all likelihood every indiscreet miscreant he mentioned in any casual letter or diary entry will be dead and beyond reproach).]

Mata Hari’s “criminal” case file was sealed by the French government for 100 years.  Why? If her crime was espionage, and it is common knowledge that everyone knows the level and content of her efforts, why seal the file?  It is because there is some other political motive at work – perhaps it had to do with the embarrassment of Ladoux's double-cross (an agent working right under French noses).  It doesn’t matter, really – it is merely a curiosity.  There can be no state secrets of any merit in the file at this late date.  In fact, a researcher had convinced the French to open the file in 1985 – without going into specifics he proclaimed Mata was innocent, according to what he was shown (corroborated by the ranking official who had provided the file to him). 

But it doesn’t require the unsealing of her file, as Mata Hari’s criminal innocence is readily concluded from the facts.  And the simple facts are these: she spied on behalf of France, she committed no crimes against France, and her only criminal activity would have been against the German nation. So, in killing her, the French murdered one of its citizens, based on war-time hysteria and political back-handing. 

In a modern court, given what “evidence” the French government had, Mata would not have even been brought to trial.  She was guilty of being a spy – for France.  The statement that Mata Hari’s “treachery” resulted in over 50,000 deaths of soldiers is a lie – the only death Mata Hari caused by her spying was her own (with the help of the French government)

Pop Culture Mata Hari
Mata Hari is a cult figure, an iconic sex-symbol with a very bad, undeserved reputation.  Her place in the public consciousness, however, has slipped somewhat.  The vague impression most people have upon hearing the name “Mata Hari” (if they know it at all these days) is the false image of her as a cold-blooded, spying harridan, destroying men and governments, cutting a swath of death and destruction. 

She was not that.  She was a dancer, and by her contemporary press, apparently a very good one.  Her financial and critical success supports that conclusion (her wildly successful spiritual foremother Lola Montez, in direct contrast, was not such a good performer, but she made up for her shortfalls with her dynamic personality). 

Certain of Mata's photographs, in costume, have entrenched in popular culture as classically iconic imagery.  Her portrait photographs, for which she was highly sought as a subject, are fascinating slices of her little pocket of the world, the one she created.  Some of the images are of course overwrought, but in the early 1900s bigger was definitely better.  Her poses have been used as references for many dancers in her wake, as well as her “story-telling” method of dance.  The woman was a celebrity in her own right. 

Mata’s name also is associated with sluttish behavior.  Mata, again like Lola Montez, was a free spirit.  But whereas Lola was more happy-go-lucky (for want of a better term), blithely skipping out on a Bavarian Revolution she helped escalate in 1848, Mata Hari was angst personified.  Her real need for men stemmed from her financially shaky childhood, and men filled her needs for love (after Rudolf’s abuses).  But more importantly they filled her need for financial security. 

Mata Hari was not a prostitute in the traditional, vulgar sense.  Mata Hari was well paid in her day for her stage work.  She was not hurting financially.  However, the constant fear of losing everything was a motivator.  Her liaisons were connected with wealth and power; Vadim appeared to be the only man for whom she truly cared beyond what he could do for her. However, Mata Hari did have sex for money, gifts, and favors, and that of course, is the very definition of a prostitute (albeit a better class of one). 

Unfortunately, after her death the focus of her persona in popular culture has been on her “femme fatale” image.  She has been featured as a character in dozens of movies,

Shades of Mata Hari in pop culture
the first in 1920, and more novels, screenplays, comic books, and television shows than can be named here.  The earliest portrayals were highly fictionalized, but tried to get the facts straight (mostly).  These early characterizations, also, were somewhat respectful of her (Greta Garbo’s work in 1931’s Mata Hari is the quintessential image of Mata most people carry in their heads). 

Mata Hari, by the 1960s, was reduced to caricature.  Shades of her were injected into female television, movie, and cartoon characters.  She was never portrayed as a dancer, except for using her dancing as her spy “cover” (sort of like how industrialist Bruce Wayne is Batman).  Perhaps the lowest “homage” to Mata was in the 1970-1972 children’s television show Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. The main characters were chimpanzees who were spies – the female spy chimp was named “Mata Hairi”. 

More Lies
In the interests of quashing rumors, other sources claim Mata Hari’s children were sickened (and one died) as a reaction to the medical treatment for syphilis, euphemistically called “The Cure”.  Allegedly, the children inherited syphilis from their parents at birth.  This is a flat-out lie, and the source of this fallacy is unknown.  Neither child had syphilis; nor did Rudolf (who probably was a great candidate for it) or Mata.  Mata was not suspected of, or ever recorded as, having syphilis. Neither underwent “The Cure” in their lives; in fact, Rudolf lived to be over 72 years old.  Syphilis would have killed him long before then if he had it – Al Capone died of syphilis complications, deranged, at age 47. 

Also, when he and Mata divorced, Rudolf was not done with procreating; he remarried in 1907 and again in 1917.  Each of these marriages produced a daughter; neither girl had syphilis and both lived into their dotage.

Finally, the arsenicals used in “The Cure” were not developed and implemented until 1910, fully eleven years after the death of Mata's son Norman.  Mata's daughter, Non, mysteriously died of a stroke at age 21, in her sleep, the night before she was to voyage to the Dutch East Indies herself to take a teaching job.  A “source” reported, however, that Non died possibly from complications relating to her alleged childhood syphilis. This sort of rumor-mongering is what certain Internet writers seem to do best rather than dig for facts. 

Although it is unproven to this day what exactly happened to the children one thing is clear: poisoning by a servant is absolutely not out of the question and is perhaps the best explanation (ingesting certain heavy metals causes black vomitus).  In colonial countries, especially on the cusp of agitation for independence, any colonizers are at great risk.  Prior to abandoning Vietnam, for example, many French families had members poisoned by staff in retaliation for their presence in a country seeking its own way. The conqueror will be at the mercy of the conquered in such times.  Agitation for freedom from the Dutch was likewise on the horizon, not to mention Rudolf’s less-than-stellar diplomacy skills with his servants.  Poisoning in retaliation for a personal injury or in a general strike against Dutch occupancy?  It doesn’t matter either way – poisoning is what makes the most sense.

Idiotic rumors surround Mata’s execution as well.  One rumor that seems unable to die is that she blew a kiss to her executioners.  This is an overflowing crock – Mata was devastated, but she tried to stay stoic.  Her old lover and lawyer, Edouard Clunet, was present at her execution, and it was to him she blew her last kiss. Another silly rumor (in keeping with the popular image of Mata Hari as a completely unrepentant, vulgar wanton, which she was not), claimed, in trying to distract her executioners as she faced the firing squad, she flung open her coat and exposed her naked body, exclaiming, “Harlot, yes, but traitor, never!”  Also a lie – Mata carried herself with a bit more dignity, and even facing a firing squad, with that being her last act on earth, she would still not have exposed her small breasts willingly. 

Mata Hari arrest and execution day photos (1917)

The clothing she wore at her execution is also all over the rumor map (starting with the coat under which she allegedly wore nothing to flash her death squad).  The New Yorker, in a 1934 article, reported that at her execution she actually wore “a neat Amazonian tailored suit, specially made for the occasion, and a pair of new white gloves”.  This, too, is ridiculous: it was already recorded she was not given clean clothes or a change of clothes while in prison.  Certainly, she would not be granted a “tailored suit made specially for the occasion”.  Another account claims she wore the same suit, blouse, and hat ensemble she wore at trial – allegedly, this was still the only full, clean outfit she had left in prison.  These are both false; photographs show her wearing something  shapeless and unremarkable.

Her last moments are also rife with rumor. Her dying words were purported to be “Merci, Monsieur” [to which “Monsieur” this enigmatic “thanks” is directed is never made clear].  An eyewitness account by British newspaper reporter, Henry Wales, may perhaps be the best, objective words uncovered about her death.  

He wrote that Mata was not bound, and she refused the blindfold that was proffered.  He reported that after the volley of shots rang out, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her”

He went on to note in his report that a non-commissioned officer then walked up to her body, drew his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead. 

Mata Hari (iconic image, hand-tinted postcard 1906)

As time passes, and the hyperbole lessens (along with the aspersions cast on her character because of her very open and flagrant sex life), scholars and historians are taking a second look, digging a little deeper, and finding out some truths about the dancer, the courtesan, and (yes) the spy, Mata Hari.

***

Part 1: Erotic, Exotic Mata Hari 
 

Mata can still fire the imagination in the modern world

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Greta Garbo's highly fictionalized 1931 portrayal

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Comments

Aug 31, 2011 11:35am
Lynsuz
Absolutely great!! Enjoyed reading about the truth and lies of Mata Hari.
Sep 1, 2011 12:38am
vicdillinger
Thanks -- sadly, though, with the snarling web of crud that is out there for source material (including hard copy stuff from more authoritative researchers)I still probably only debunked about 60% of the fabrications and exaggerations about this woman (I pretty much lived with her for almost three weeks between this and Part 1 -- I have to fix the link to that one; it's posted, the URL is worng on this article). Just for fun, the same night I uploaded this last piece about her I was goofing around on ebay and found one of her original 1906 handtinted postcards online for sale (it was the real deal). And if I hadn't been so broke at the time he was selling it I would have bought it myself -- it was in great shape, the colors really sharp.
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Bibliography

  1. "Mata Hari." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  2. "Her Bed Was a Battlefield." Out of This World, v.1. 1978.
  3. "Mata Hari." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  4. "Mata Hari." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mata_Hari. 15/08/2011 <Web >

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