Mata Hari

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.

Mata Hari

Margaretha Zelle alias Mata Hari

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.

Mata Hari

Mata Hari

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.


The Eleven Cities Tour, in Dutch: Elfstedentocht or, in Frisian: Alvestêdetocht is at a distance of 200 km, the world’s largest and longest speed skating race.

It is held in the province of Friesland, one of the northern provinces of the Netherlands. The tour is only held when the ice along the entire course is at least 15 cm thick. If the event does go through it is only organised once a year. However, since the venue is entirely dependent on the winter elements the race has only been run fifteen times since 1909 – at the time of writing, the last race was held in 1997.

Elfstedentocht in 1985

The tour connects the twelve towns in Friesland that have ever been allowed to call themselves a city in a clockwise direction. Until 2005 it was thought that there were only eleven cities and a number of villages along the route, but it has been proven that the town of Berlikum was dubbed a city 1355. Thankfully, Berlikum or Berltsum in Frisian, was already on the route so the original course could be retained. Nowadays, the town is no longer an officially recognised as a city but as a village. So name of the race has remained the same.

The track of the racecourse is divided up into eleven sections, with every city at its centre. In every section, a steward known as a Rayonhoofd is in charge of the race administration, organisation and the quality of the ice. These stewards form the governing body of the race organisation. A majority of the Rayonhoofden has to vote in favour of a race if it is going to take place at all.

Not every frozen stream or canal on the racecourse is entirely suitable for skating. To avoid accidents these parts of the track are avoided by a practise known as klunen. This involves the skaters stepping on the land and speed-walking along the unusable parts of the frozen track on their skates.

All participating skaters must be a member of the Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities. To become a member one must be over eighteen and have the endorsements of two members who state that the proposed member is fit enough to finish the gruelling race. At the start a starting permit is required. Further more, in each city the skater must collect a stamp, as well as a stamp from the three secret check points. The skater must finish the 200 km course before the next midnight.

The first official race in 1909 was the longest to date to declare a winner. Minne Hoekstra skated 13:50 hours to finish first.

In 1933, Abe de Vries and Sipke Castelein and in 1940, Piet Keijzer, Auke Adema, Cor Jongert, Durk van der Duim and Sjouke Westra respectively decided not to compete in the final leg and crossed the finish line in unison.

After shared wins in 1933 and 1940, this practice was forbidden by the organisation. Nevertheless, in 1956 Jan van der Hoorn, Aad de Koning, Jeen Nauta, Maus Wijnhout and Anton Verhoeven ignored this rule when they also crossed the finish line in unison. They were not disqualified, but no official winner was declared.

In 1947, Jan van der Hoorn finished fifth but was later declared winner when the first four competitors were disqualified for receiving illegal help from the audience along the route.

The race held in 1963 was dubbed the worst race ever. Due to the extreme temperatures and the incredibly fierce winds only 69 contestants out of the starting 9294 finished the race. Today it is still known as ‘the hell of 63’.

The fastest winner to date is Evert van Benthem who in 1985 finished first in a record 6:47 hours.

Until 1933 the course had been raced in a counter-clockwise direction. This was reversed in the race of 1941. Nowadays, the racecourse outline is as follows:

– Leeuwarden (Start) (Frisian: Ljouwert) (-) km
– Sneek (Snits) 22km
– IJlst (Drylts) 26 km
– Sloten (Sleat) 40 km
– Stavoren (Starum) 66 km
– Hindeloopen (Hylpen) 77 km
– Workum (Warkum) 86 km
– Bolsward (Boalsert) 99 km
– Harlingen (Harns) 116 km
– Franeker (Frjentsjer) 129 km
– Dokkum (Dokkum) 174 km
– Leeuwarden (Finish) (Ljouwert) 199 km

The finishing point of the Elfstedentocht is a canal near Leeuwarden, called the Bonkevaart. Close to the Bonkevaart is the famous landmark windmill, De Bullemolen.

English: Lekkum: Bullemolen with flags Nederla...

The mill called De Bullemolen next to the stream De Bonkevaart, the finishing point of the race

Since the Elfstedentocht is such a rare event, its declaration creates excitement all over the country. As soon as a few days pass with sub-zero temperatures, the media start speculating about the chances for an Elfstedentocht.

The longer the freezing temperatures stay, the more intense this Elfstedenkoorts, Eleven City Tour fever gets – culminating in a national near-frenzy when the announcement is spoken that the tour is actually taking place. The day before the race many Dutch flock to Leeuwarden to enjoy the party atmosphere that surrounds the event. The evening before the race called the Nacht van Leeuwarden, the Night of Leeuwarden becomes a giant city-wide street party. Frisians, who have a reputation of surliness, are said to thaw when it freezes.

The announcement: it giet troch, in Dutch het gaat door, literally translated as it is on, meaning ‘the race is on’ has become one the most famous Frisian expressions in the Netherlands.

See other: Admin’s Choice Posts


Bloedrode bladeren in de vorst
Zo is de winter te bevechten
En bemoedigt aller eeuwige dorst
Om twee harten te vervlechten

Mijn bekleedt land rood vergeeld
Maakt de aarde deugdzaam sober
Met vallende kleuren zacht bespeelt
Droomt de herfstspreker in oktober

Zoals alle bloemen die verflensen
Lovend lieflijk en ontroerd
Zou ik verlangend alles wensen
In haar boezem meegevoerd

– Willem Etsenmaker

See other: Admin’s Choice Posts

Before Christ

‘I have my dinner while sitting on a kitchen stool at the kitchen table, opposite a reproduction of a scene painted in the sixth century before Christ (who has been so impertinent to seize the centuries before him as well) by Prithinos at the bottom of the bowl, Peleus wrestling Thetis.’

Nooteboom. C. 1991. Het Volgende Verhaal [The Next Story] Amsterdam, The Netherlands: De Arbeiderspers (1991) p. 11

The Language Inheritance

‘Language is something you inherit, you are never quite yourself when you speak, which makes it easier to lie.’

Nooteboom C. 2009. ‘s Nachts Komen de Vossen [The Foxes Come At Night] Amsterdam, The Netherlands: De Bezige Bij (2009) p. 41