The Day France Sentenced An Exotic Dancer to Die a German Spy
It was 100 years ago, July 25, 1917, when the French found a woman named Mata Hari guilty of espionage for the Germans. For her crimes, they sentenced her to death.
The documents from that trial along with the transcripts kept secret all these years. At one time, the French authorities promised to release everything, but to date, she remains guilty of her crime.
When, in October 1917, they put Hari in front of the firing squad, she refused the blindfold they offered. She would look her killers in the eyes. They would have to face her too.
For a moment, she had to wonder, how did I get here? Is my life really about to end?
The Germans and the French may have in fact enlisted Hari to collect intel, but what she actually did might have been more damning, even by French standards.
She was an internationally famous exotic dancer [read: a prostitute, basically]. France’s reputation for loose women was one thing, but Hari made it normal to get naked in front of crowds.
It wasn’t that the French cared, but it made her an easy scapegoat and a distraction.
Contrary to popular rumor, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle had no Asian or Middle-eastern blood. She was Dutch, through and through, born in a small town in northern Holland in 1876.
Zelle lived a privileged but tough youth. Her father sold hats and owned oil investments, so he was able to put Hari through a good school.
Then, in 1889, her father’s fortunes turned. He went bankrupt and divorced. Zelle’s mother died in 1891. Her father remarried two years later.
Zelle was over it. She lived for a time in her godfather’s home then in her uncle’s, until at age 18 she married and left Holland.
Not long after Zelle married Army Captain Rudolph MacLeod, a man she met by responding to his ad in the paper seeking a wife, the two left for Java.
MacLeod was the son of a ship’s captain, so they had money and the freedom to travel at a time when people didn’t do that they way they do today.
The new couple stayed in Java long enough to have two children, but it wasn’t the island paradise life for Zelle. Macleod drank a lot and beat her. That was when he wasn’t busy with his mistress.
To make life livable, Zelle joined a local dance company and learned Indonesian traditions. By 1897, she adopted her stage name, Mata Hari, meaning eye of the day.
She and MacLeod moved back to Holland and eventually separated in 1902.
One of Zelle’s children died in Java. The other, her now ex-husband took from her.
With few options, she moved to Paris in 1903 and took work in entertainment. She told people that she’d been born in a sacred Indian temple, insisting they call her Mata Hari.
Her act did well, mostly because she stripped down to almost nude. It did so well, she traveled all over Europe, including Russia, packing dance halls.
When the Great War broke out, as was the case with many courtesans, she acquired clients in military positions. Hari, due to her relative fame, attracted more high-ranking officers.
This would be her undoing.
Twice, MI5 officers and detained Hari for questioning in 1915 and 1916, but nothing came of it. Still, she was on someone’s radar, but for what, sleeping with officers?
The evidence presented in her trial indicates that she may have done some spying for the French as a double agent. But, the French were not engaged in the Great War, not technically.
On top of everything, the state of affairs in France was grave. Civilians made regular protests about the impoverished states of life. The French military revolted. French officials needed some kind of hope.
The assertion made by many in Holland was that the French found Hari guilty as a means to distract the country from internal strife.
They accused her of revealing the British secret weapon, the tank, which they claimed, cost many lives. They also accused her of revealing allied shipping details, costing ten of thousands of lives.
For these crimes, they tried her in a military court, found her guilty, and convicted her to death by firing squad.
Mari, of course, protested her innocence, but for naught. She died on the firing range in October 1917.