Mata Hari was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida “Grietje” Zelle. She was born on August the 7th 1876, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, and died tragically on October 15th 1917 at Vincennes, France. Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and accused spy, who was executed by firing squad in France for espionage for Germany during World War I.
During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Margaretha Zelle was thus able to cross national borders freely. To avoid the battlefields, she travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain, and her movements inevitably attracted attention.
In 1916 she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the English port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by Sir Basil Thomson, Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. He gave an account of this in his 1922 book comically named: Queer People, saying that she eventually admitted to working for French Intelligence.
Initially detained in Canon Street police station she was then released and stayed at the Savoy Hotel. A full transcript of the interview is in Britain’s National Archives and was broadcast with Mata Hari played by Eleanor Bron on the independent station London Broadcasting in 1980.
It is unclear if she lied on this occasion, believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if French authorities were using her in such a way, but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.
In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named H-21. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Unusually, the messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, leaving some historians to suspect that the messages were contrived.
On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. She was put on trial, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her make-up. She wrote several letters to the Dutch Consul in Paris, claiming her innocence. “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else […]. Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Despite her pleas, she was found guilty and was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, aged 41.
Pat Shipman’s biography Femme Fatale argues that Mata Hari was never a double agent, speculating that she was used as a scapegoat by the head of French counter-espionage. Georges Ladoux had been responsible for recruiting Mata Hari as a French spy and later was arrested for being a double agent himself. The facts of the case remain vague because the official case documents regarding the execution were sealed for 100 years, although, in 1985, biographer Russell Warren Howe managed to convince the French Minister of National Defence to break open the file, about 32 years early. It was revealed that Mata Hari was innocent of her charges of espionage.