by Wendy Graham
Published: June 14, 2018
Mata Hari born was born on this day August 7, 1876 as Margaretha “Gretha” Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands. Since her conviction and execution as a double agent during WWI she has become a byword for the femme fatale. Productions like the 1931 film “Mata Hari” starring Greta Garbo perpetuated the story of the glamorous courtesan and exotic dancer whose dangerous double life as a spy was suddenly found out by the French, leading to her execution in 1917. However the last few years has seen a revision of these events and of Mata Hari herself. The truth, it turns out, is more complex.
Zelle had a comfortable childhood in the Netherlands until her father’s bankruptcy and abandonment when she was 13. This was followed by her mother’s death at 15 and a life with relatives. At 18 she answered a lonely hearts ad in a newspaper and shortly after married Rudolph John MacLeod, an officer in the East Indies Army, 21 years older than herself. The couple had two children and moved to the East Indies. Zelle lived to regret her decision to marry MacLeod, he beat her, kept a courtesan and gave her syphilis, then common among soldiers.
In 1898 her children were mysteriously poisoned, the parents claimed by a nanny, her son died but her daughter survived. Sources suggest the children might have been suffering the effects from over-treatment for syphilis. The couple returned to the Netherlands, separated and eventually divorced. However, MacLeod refused to provide any financial support for Zelle to support her daughter, forcing her to move to Paris alone to earn money. Zelle’s anguish at her situation, separated from her daughter is reflected in a newly published collection of Zelle's personal family letters “Don’t Think That I’m Bad: Margaretha Zelle Before Mata Hari (1902-1904)”.
By 1905 she was dancing under the name of Mata Hari and had invented a new identity for herself; that of a Javanese princess performing a Hindi priestly dance. Her dancing was more of a striptease but she was all the rage in a Europe then in thrall to all things exotic.
After 10 years, Zelle’s act was no longer fashionable though she was still able to support herself as a courtesan, though naively, she slept with both French and German soldiers in a Europe at war.
Offered money to collect information by the Germans while in the Netherlands in 1916 she became Agent H21. She then fell in love with a Russian officer, 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff. When he was blinded and injured at the front and sent to recover in France, Zelle desperate to see him, asked French army Captain Georges Ladoux permission to see him. He gave it to her on condition she work for French intelligence.
It seems that when the Germans learned nothing useful from her and knowing she was now in the employment of French intelligence, they turned her in. A lover, Major Arnold Kalle, a German military attaché sent a message in a code he knew had already been cracked by the French, identifying her as agent H21. She was arrested in Paris in February 1917.
During her trial Zelle was interrogated by Captain Pierre Bouchardon, a military prosecutor, who held up her way of living as evidence against her. She is supposed to have replied
"A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!"
In 2017, archives of the trial were released by the French government and do not reflect a fair trial. There is some evidence Georges Ladoux set her up and perhaps even falsified evidence against her. It was a desperate time for the French. There were vast war casualties and moral was at appallingly low levels. Arresting a double agent painted the French war effort in a suddenly much better light.
The prosecution during Zelle’s trial went so far as to blame her for the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers, though no specific evidence was ever provided as to how she caused these fatalities. There is also little evidence she ever passed on any information of value beyond gossip. Zelle did admit she had accepted money from Germany but claimed she treated it as payment for clothes of her’s that went missing on a German train.
An exhibit that opened in 2017 on Mata Hari at the Museum of Friesland in her hometown of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands backs up this view. Today most view her, certainly as a spy, just not a very good one, more as a woman naively trying to pay her way during a time of war and providing an easy scapegoat for a nation during desperate times. In fact as early as 1930 the German government exculpated Zelle.
Zelle was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, near Paris. She seems to have died bravely, she refused a blindfold and stood silently until the gunshots rang out. Some accounts say she blew her executors a kiss yet other accounts say she merely raised her hand in farewell to the nuns who had looked after her in prison. This final discrepancy sums up the very different ways people have viewed her life and death.