Mata Hari: How The Legendary German Spy Was Actually A Victim Of French Propaganda

The fateful life of history's most famous female spy!

Mata Hari, Female Spy, Femme fatale, Germany, France, World War I

In the early hours of Oct. 15, 1917, Mata Hari — one of the most famous spies of the 20th century — was shaken awake in her prison cell. Her time had come.

Given a pen, ink, paper, and envelopes, Mata Hari was allowed to write two letters, according to an account by journalist Henry G. Wales, a correspondent for the International News Service. She hastily scribbled the notes before donning her black stockings, high heels and a velvet cloak lined at the bottom with fur.

“I am ready,” she said.

She was driven from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to an old fort on the outskirts of Paris. It was just past 5:30 a.m. when she faced her firing squad: 12 French officers with their rifles at ease.

Offered a white cloth to wear as a blindfold, Mata Hari refused, saying: “Must I wear that?”

Legend has it that as the officers drew their weapons, Mata Hari, 41, blew a kiss to her executioners.

Then they fired.

 Image source: oldpicsarchive

Margaretha Zelle, the dancer and famed German spy known by her stage name, “Mata Hari,” died 100 years ago yesterday. She was executed by firing squad in France for espionage on Oct. 15, 1917. Her story lives on thanks to the propaganda efforts of the French government.

Victim of an abusive marriage, Zelle parted ways with her husband in 1902. Margaretha then made her way to Paris where she reinvented herself as an Indian temple dancer thoroughly trained in the erotic dances of the East.

She took on the name Mata Hari and was soon luring audiences in the thousands as she performed in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid and other European capitals. She also attracted a number of highly-placed, aristocratic lovers willing to reward her handsomely for the pleasure of her company.

 Image source: mashable

In 1905 Mata Hari broke onto the social scene with a performance in the Musée Guimet, an Asian art museum in Paris. Invitations were issued to 600 of the capital’s wealthy elite.

Mata Hari presented utterly novel dances in transparent, revealing costumes, a jeweled bra, and an extraordinary headpiece.

In a period when every rich and influential man wanted a beautiful mistress on his arm, Mata Hari came to be known as the most glamorous, fascinating, and desirable woman in Paris.

She was seen with the who’s who of the city, from aristocrats to diplomats, from financiers to top military officers, and wealthy businessmen, who made sure she led a luxurious life, simply for the pleasure of being in her company.

 Image source: flashback

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 did not alter her extravagance. Mata Hari continued to travel, which brought her to the attention of the counterespionage world. The fall of 1915 found her in The Hague, where Karl Kroemer, the honorary German consul of Amsterdam, paid her a visit. He offered her 20,000 francs—equivalent to $61,000 in today’s currency—to spy for Germany.

While she accepted the funds, which she viewed as repayment for her furs, jewels, and money the Germans had seized when war broke out, she did not accept the job.

Perhaps the most significant plot twist to Mata Hari’s legacy is that she did not divulge any information of consequence to the Germans. Shamed in the international press as a traitor, she was accused of revealing closely kept secrets about Allied tanks, leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers.

Her relationships with German and French officers put her under special scrutiny, as did her travels crisscrossing through Europe during the war.

In 1916 the war was going badly for the French. Two of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war—Verdun and the Somme—pitted the French against the Germans for months at a time. The mud, bad sanitation, disease, and the newly introduced horror of phosgene gas led to the death or maiming of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Eventually, French troops became so demoralized that some refused to fight. Ladoux felt the arrest of a prominent spy could raise French spirits and recharge the war effort.

 Image source: friesmuseum

Caught outside France at the start of the war, she was desperate to get back to Paris. Karl Kroemer, the German consul in Amsterdam, offered her the means… if she would be so good as to help them with certain information from time to time. Thus was created Agent H21.

Mata Hari insisted to her interrogators that she just meant to take the money and run. She said her loyalty was to the Allies, as she had shown when she subsequently promised to help French intelligence. But the evidence against her was now clear.

At the Chateau de Vincennes, Mata Hari was led to a piece of ground where a post had been erected in front of an earthen bank. Twelve soldiers formed the firing squad.

Information source: bbc

Cover image source: rarehistoricalphotos

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Manali Kulkarni (WRITER)

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