Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mata Hari: Spy for Germany or scapegoat for the French military?

"Her real crime, however, was being a woman of loose morals. Mata Hari freely admitted to a long list of lovers, from Paris to Berlin. Not even the British were immune. Her arresting officer said, “She was one of the most charming specimens of female humanity I had ever set eyes on,” and Sir Basil [Thomson} (Scotland Yard's Assistant Commissioner of Police and Head of Special Branch) himself would remember her as “tall and sinuous, with glowing black eyes and a dusky complexion, vivacious in manner, intelligent and quick in repartee.” 

- Don Hollway
From: "Mata Hari: Beauty, Seduction & Espionage"  
History Magazine, January 2016

One hundred years ago yesterday, Mata Hari was convicted of spying for Germany during World War One.  On July 25th, 1917, a French military court sentenced her to death.  Her name has since become synonymous with mysterious and seductive female espionage, but how much is her reputation is deserved?  Was she truly guilty of seditious wartime espionage or was she merely a pawn, a scapegoat for the ineptitude of the French military?  She may have been a spy, but was she a double agent? According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, "the nature and extent of her espionage activities remain uncertain, and her guilt is widely contested."

Maha Hari was the stage name of a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan.  She was born Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" Zelle in Leeuwarden in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876.  Margaretha was the eldest of the five children of Adam Zelle (October 2, 1840 - March 13, 1910) and his first wife, Antje van der Meulen (April 21, 1842 - May 9, 1891). Margaretha had four brothers:  Johannes Hendriks Zelle (November 26, 1878 - July 10, 1936), Jacob Zelle (November 10, 1879 - December 30, 1955); Arie Anne Zelle (August 9, 1881 - 1955) and Cornelius Coenraad Zelle (August 9, 1881 - May 31, 1956). Note: Biographical references to Mata Hari state that she had three brothers, but a genealogical website lists the names of four brothers, the two youngest being twins).

Adam Zelle, Magaretha's father, was a milliner by trade and owned a hat shop.  He became quite prosperous due to investments in the oil industry and spoiled his young daughter, lavishing much attention on her and sending her to exclusive schools.  In 1889, however, Zelle's speculation in oil shares ended in terrible misfortune. He went bankrupt and departed for The Hague in utter humiliation. Margaretha's parents divorced soon after the bankruptcy and her father remarried in Amsterdam in 1893.  His second wife was Susanna Catherina ten Hove.

Adam Zelle
When Margaretha's mother died in 1891, the family, split up and the 15-year-old was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, southwest of Leeuwarden.  She eventually left the Sneek household and made her way to the town of Leiden, where she attended a teachers' college and planned to teach kindergarten.  However, a scandal ensued when the college's 51-year-old headmaster began flirting with her.  The were caught in a compromising position and Margaretha's godfather removed her from the school. The disgraced teen then fled to her uncle's home in The Hague.

When she was 18 years old, a restless Margaretha came across a newspaper ad from Captain Rudolph MacLeod (born March 1, 1856).  MacLeod, an army officer stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), was on leave and sought "a girl of pleasant character" for matrimony.  Margaretha boldly replied to the ad and provided a captivating photo of herself, tall, raven-hared and olive-skinned.  The mustachioed military man was intrigued by this brazen young woman. and despite an age gap of more than twenty years, the two wed.

Margaretha married Captain MacLeod in Amsterdam on July 11, 1895.  Her new husband was a man of Scottish ancestry who served with distinction in the Dutch colonial army.  Margaretha was nearing her 19th birthday and MacLeod was 39 at the time of their marriage.  She had had few prospects and the marriage provided her with social status, financial security and respectability.

Captain Rudolph MacLeod

From 1897 to 1902, Margaretha and her husband made their home in Java and Sumatra.  Their union, though, was not a happy one.  While in the Indies, coquettish Margaretha, who had a penchant for soldiers in uniform, was pursued by young lieutenants. This provoked Rudolph's jealousy, although he was not exactly a model spouse himself.  According to the Don Hollway in his History Magazine article, MacLeod also "had his own issues: gambling, drinking, womanizing, jealousy and spousal abuse, not to mention venereal disease."

The couple did have two children - a son named Norman John MacLeod (born January 30, 1897 - died June 27, 1899) and a daughter named Jeanne Louise MacLeod (born May 2, 1898).  In June of 1899, however, a terrible tragedy occurred. Both children became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized.  Two-year-old Norman died and Jeanne Louise (known as "Non") narrowly survived. Although a nanny was accused of poisoning the children, Hollway and others contend that Norman's death was more likely due to congenital syphilis, or its virulent mercury "cure."  It is thought that Margaretha may have contracted syphilis from her husband and passed it on to her children.

Jeanne Louuse MacLeod

Rudolph and son Norman
Margaretha and Rudolph returned to the Netherlands together in 1902, but separated soon after.  In 1906, their marriage ended in divorce and Rudolph MacLeod was granted custody of their daughter. After the break-up of her marriage, Margaretha headed for the City of Lights. In 1905, she started to dance professionally in Paris, using the moniker "Lady MacLeod." However, she soon adopted the name "Mata Hari," which is a  Malay expression for the sun or "eye of the day."  She performed East Indian dances and was willing to appear virtually nude in public, clad only in a beaded brassiere and heavy costume jewellery.

Taking advantage of her swarthy, exotic looks, Mararetha created the "Mata Hari" persona for herself. As part of her act, she performed a "temple dance" based on the knowledge of cultural and religious symbolism that she had acquired while living in the Dutch East Indies.  Although of Dutch heritage, she was able to successfully pass herself off as an alluring Javanese princess.

In the years before World War One, Mata Hari was one of the most popular exotic dancers in the French capital and elsewhere in Europe.  She danced before crowds in Berlin, Madrid, Monte Carlo, Milan and Rome.  She also became the mistress of many famous and powerful men.  About 1912, however, Mata Hari's dancing career began to decline and her bookings became fewer. By March of 1915, her star had faded and and she performed for the last time. The novelty of her act had worn off. She was approaching forty and had gained weight. When her career ended, she found it difficult to maintain her lavish lifestyle, so she supplemented her income by seducing government and military men.

During the war, Mata Hari was able to travel freely.  She spoke several languages and, as a Dutch subject, had no difficulty crossing borders due to the neutrality of the Netherlands.  In fact, Mata Hari traversed so frequently from country to country that her name appeared on a list of suspected spies. She also knew knew no borders when it came to her lovers, who unwisely included German officers. It is not surprising, therefore, that her activities brought her to the attention of British and French intelligence and that she was placed under surveillance.

Meanwhile, Mata Hari fell in love a much younger Russian pilot, Captain Vadim Maslov, who served with the French.  Maslov, only in his 20s, was part of the Russian Expeditionary Force that was deployed to the Western Front in the spring of 1916.  In the summer of 1916, he was shot down and seriously wounded during battle with the German.  He also faced the loss of the sight in both of his eyes.

When Mata Hara asked for permission to visit her Russian paramour at a hospital on the front, French officials allowed her to do so, provided she agreed to spy on the Germans.  Wanting to visit Maslov and in need of money, Mata Hari agreed to spy for France.  A French army captain named Georges Ladoux recruited her to pass on military secrets from her lovers to the French government. Ladoux, head of the Deuxième Bureau (French military intelligence during World War One), assumed she was a German agent.

Georges Ladoux

The French were particularly interested in obtaining military secrets from Crown Prince Wilhelm, the playboy eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II (Mata Hari had danced for him before the war.).  They offered Mata Hari a million francs to senduce him.  What the French didn't realize was that the Crown Prince had little relevant information to offer them as he was not the great warrior that German propaganda portrayed him to be.  Although Prince Wilhelm was nominally a senior German general on the Western Front, he had very little active involvement.

Mata Hari accepted her lucrative assignment at a time when French fortunes in the war were at a low ebb.  French defeats were mounting and the army was in revolt.  Mata Hari's defenders argue that her extravagance, her open flaunting of her sexuality and her foreignness made her the ideal scapegoat to blame for the French predicament.

In November of 2016, Mata Hari was travelling from Spain by steamer, when her ship docked at the British port of Falmouth. She was arrested there and taken to London where she underwent intense questioning from Sir Basil Thomson, who was in charge of counter-espionage at New Scotland Yard. In his 1922 book, Queer People, Thomson provided an account of the interview and stated that Mata Hari admitted to working for the Deuxième Bureau.

After her interrogation, Mata Hari was initially detained at a police station and then released due to a lack of concrete evidence. She then stayed at the posh Savoy Hotel in central London.  However, Scotland Yard tipped off the French to keep her under close surveillance and then sent her back to Spain. Upon her return to Madrid, she rendezvoused with a German military attaché named Major Arnold Kalle and asked if she could see the Crown Prince.  In January of 1917, Kalle sent radio messages to Berlin regarding the helpful assistance of a German spy-code H-21, whose description was almost identical to Mata Hari's.  French intelligence intercepted Kalle's messages and identified H-21 as Mata Hari.

On February 13, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested by the French Secret Service in her room at the swanky Elysees Palace Hotel in Paris.  After her arrest, she underwent intense interrogation.  She only admitted to passing some outdated information to a German intelligence officer, but confessed to providing the inconsequential communication under the pseudonym of H-21. She later claimed that she was only trying to regain property that had been taken away from her by German officials.

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest

Mata Hari's chief nemesis was Captain Ladoux, one of her principal accusers.  Ladoux presented the evidence against her in a most damning fashion and on suspicion of being a double agent, Mata Hari was thrown into a filthy jail cell in the Prison Saint-Lazare,  She was accused of spying for Germany against the French and British and was tried before a French military court on July 24-25, 1917.  At her trial, she was charged with being responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 French soldiers by revealing details of the Allies' new weapon, the tank. After deliberating for less than 45 minutes, the tribunal convicted her of espionage and sentenced her to death.

Mata Hari was executed by a 12-man firing squad on October 15, 1917.  The execution took place just before dawn, at Vincennes, outside of Paris.  She arrived at the muddy field, wearing a bright blue coat to protect her from the cold, a three-cornered hat to cover her untidy hair (unkempt from months of incarceration) and ankle boots, As she was about to be bound to the stake, she bravely refused to wear a blindfold and it has been reported that she blew a kiss to the dozen men before they shot her. No one claimed Mata Hari's corpse and her body was donated to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. She was 41 years old at the time of her death

In 1930, the government of Germany publicly cleared Mata Hari of any guilt.

On October 15 2001 (84 years to the day of Mata Hari's execution), a group from her birthplace in Leeuwarden, Netherlands implored the French justice minister to reopen the case against the Dutch exotic dancer.  A delegation spokesman declared, "Maybe she wasn't entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn't the masterspy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.  She was probably more sexual than criminal."  The French justice ministry at the time, under Marylise Lebranch agreed to re-examine Mata Hari's conviction.

In 2007, a biography entitled, Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari was published by Pat Shipman, a freelance writer and Professor of Anthropology at Penn State University. Shipman researched Mata Hari's background and marriage and examined numerous declassified documents in France and England concerning Mata Hari's arrest and espionage trial.  She made the case that Mata Hari was framed by trumped-up evidence.  She  wrote: "The Allied commanders, especially the French, needed someone to blame, to punish - to defeat, as they were being defeated by the Germans. And there she came, the perfect scapegoat: a tall, dark woman . . ."

There is no doubt that Mata Hari exercised poor judgement and that she was a notorious femme fatale.  However, it is questionable as to whether she was a double agent who deserved her fate.


* Rudolph MacLeod remarried and his second wife was Grietjie Meijer.  MacLeod died on January 9, 1928 in Rheden, Gelderlnd, Netherlands.  He was 71 years old at the time of his passing.

* Although Mata Hari's daughter, Jean Louise survived the "poisoning," she died in 1919 at the age of 21, possibly from complications related to congenital syphilis.  She never really knew her mother.

* Four days after Mata Hari's execution, Captain Georges Ladoux was arrested for being a double agent.  He was eventually acquitted of the charges.

- Joanne

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