Margaretha Zelle, better known by her alias Mata Hari, was one of the most interesting women of her time, with one of the most intriguing story lines. Born on 7 August 1876, in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, Margaretha had a lavish early childhood that included exclusive schools until the age of 13, as her father became affluent by investing in the oil industry. Despite the traditional assumption, she had no Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry, as both her parents were Dutch. Unfortunately, her happy days ended soon, when her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and her mother died young in 1891.
As his father remarried in 1893, the family fell apart and Margaretha moved to live with her godfather, Mr Visser, in Sneek. Subsequently, when she was studying to be a Kindergarten teacher in Leiden, the headmaster of the institution began to flirt with her conspicuously and consequently, her offended godfather removed her from the institution. After a few months of the incident, she fled to her uncle's home in The Hague.
When she was 18, Margaretha casually answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper for a wife, placed by the Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, based on the island of Java in Indonesia, which was known as Dutch East Indies in those days. After their marriage in Amsterdam on 11 July 1895, they moved to Malang in the eastern Java, had two children and grasped the opportunity to move into the Dutch upper class, as her husband had a sound footing. However, it was not a happy marriage, as MacLeod was an alcoholic, use to beat his twenty years younger wife regularly and openly kept a concubine. Finally, the disillusioned Zelle left him and moved in with Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer. During this time, she studied Indonesian dance and customs, joined a local dance company and took her famous stage name, Mata Hari, which literally means ‘eye of the day’ or the sun, in Malay language.
In 1899, as the children fell violently ill from complications relating to the treatment of Syphilis, contacted from one of their parents, Zelle returned to her husband at his insistence. Unfortunately, their son died and the couple returned to the Netherland with their daughter, Jeanne. While the pair separated in1902, they were officially divorced in 1906. Zelle was awarded the custody of Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to pay her support, which he never did. He made life more difficult for Margaretha, when during a visit of Jeanne to his father, MacLeod refused to give the child back to Margaretha. The helpless mother could do nothing about it, as she did not have sufficient resources to fight the situation. She moved to Paris in 1903, after Jeanne passed away at the age of 21, possibly from complications relating to syphilis.
To earn a living in Paris, she started her life as a circus horse rider and posed as an artist's model. However, by 1904, she began to win fame and appreciation as an exotic dancer. She was promiscuous, flirtatious, openly flaunting her body and easily captivated her audiences. In fact, as Mata Hari, she was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musee Guimet on 13 March 1905. In her act, she brought a sensual and provocative style to the stage, as she progressively stripped, until she wore just a jeweled breastplate and some ornaments upon her arms and head. However, she never exposed her bosoms, as she was always conscious about her small breasts. At the beginning, for her performance, she used to wear a bodice similar to her complexion, which she later averted. During that period, she was photographed numerous times in nude or nearly so.
However, the scenario changed by 1910 and with the flooded increase of her imitators, critics started to comment that the success and dazzling features of the popular Mata Hari were due to cheap exhibitionism and lacked artistic merit and though she continued to schedule important social events throughout Europe, she was held in disdain by serious cultural institutions. As her career as a dancer dwindled, she appeared before the public for her last performance on 13 March 1915.Nevertheless, by that time she had become a successful courtesan, had relationship with lots of high-ranking military officers, politicians and many influential persons in many European countries, which frequently took her across international borders.
During World War I, Zelle was involved in an intense romantic-sexual relationship with Captain Vadim Maslov, a 23-year-old Russian pilot, serving the French. During a dogfight with the Germans in the summer of 1916, he was shot down and badly injured, losing his sight in both eyes. As Zelle asked for the permission to visit her distressed lover at the hospital, she was told by Deuxieme Bureau, the external military agency of France, that her request would be granted, only if she agree to spy for France. They offered her one million francs, if she could provide France with good intelligence about the military plans of Germany, by seducing the Crown Prince. In fact, the Deuxième Bureau believed that, as the Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany enjoyed a number of her dancing shows, she might be able to obtain information by seducing him. However, they were unaware that Wilhelm did not have much to do with the German army and had little to offer in terms of valuable intelligence. Nevertheless, Zelle had to accept the proposal, as she did not have any choice and was desperate to meet her lover.
In late 1916, Margaretha Zelle travelled to Madrid to meet the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle and asked him to arrange for a meeting with the Crown Prince. In return, she probably offered to share French secrets with Germany in exchange of money. However, whether she offered the proposal as an attractive bait for managing an interview with the Crown Prince or to earn a future, is not clear.
Unfortunately, within a short time, General Walter Nicolai, the chief intelligence officer of the German Army, became impatient and irritated, as Mata Hari had provided him with no intelligence worthy of the name and only selling the spicy gossips of Paris about the sex lives of French politicians and generals. He decided to terminate her by exposing her as a German spy to the French. Accordingly, in January 1917, Major Kalle transmitted radio messages to Berlin, describing the helpful activities of a German spy code-named H-21. However, the Deuxième Bureau intercepted the messages and identified H-21 as Mata Hari. The German intelligence knew that the code used for the messages had already been broken by the French, suggesting that the message was manufactured to have Zelle arrested by the French.
Mata Hari was arrested on 13 February 1917, from her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées in Paris and on 24 July, she was 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, they could not produce any definite evidence against her. On her part, Mata Hari admitted that she accepted a payment of 20,000 francs from a German diplomat in the Netherlands to spy on France, but insisted she only passed on to the Germans trivial information and her loyalty was entire to her adopted nation, France. She wrote several letters to the Dutch Ambassador in Paris, claiming her innocence and claiming that she really did not spy. However, nobody came forward to help her. It was reported that she fainted when she was given to understand that even Captain Vadim Maslov, her Russian lover, refused to vouch for her. Even, her defense attorney was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly.
According to the Canadian Historian Wesley Wark, Mata Hari was never an important spy, she was made a scapegoat for the failures of the French military, for which she had nothing to do with. Julie Wheelwright, a reputed British historian stated that, she was an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. Though she was often portrayed as a femme fatale, a dangerous and seductive woman who used her sexuality to effortlessly manipulate men, the American historians Norman Polmer and Thomas Allen viewed her as naïve and easily duped a victim of men rather than a victimizer.
Just before the dawn on 15 October 1917, Margaretha Zelle, alias Mata Hari, aged 41, was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to an eyewitness account by British reporter Henry Wales, she was not bound, refused a blindfold and defiantly blew a kiss to the firing squad.
Henry Wales recorded her death, saying that after the volley of shots rang out, she settled to her knees slowly and inertly, her head up always and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, she seemed to be tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. A non-commissioned officer then walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure that she was dead.
[The pictures used in the article, were mostly coloured by Olga Shirnina from Russia, also known as Olga Kimbim.]