Mata Hari is World War I’s best known spy, but is this designation deserved?
“For the past 100 years, Mata Hari has been revered as the ultimate femme fatale — the seductive, glamorous exotic dancer who spied for the Germans during World War I and caused the deaths of thousands of Allied soldiers,” the Washington Post says. “She captured the imaginations of people around the world long after she met her fate.”
Historians are slowly chipping away at the myth of Mata Hari to discover her true story.
Born Aug. 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Hari’s real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle.
Zelle had a privileged upbringing for the first decade or so of her life. After that, financial problems plagued her family. The problems were followed by her parents’ divorce and her mother’s death.
She went to school to become a teacher, but was expelled for having sex with the headmaster. Sex was a weakness Zelle would have her entire life.
In 1895, she married Rudolph MacLeod. They had two children, one of whom died as a youngster. Some sources say the boy died not long after birth, others say he died mysteriously, and some say he was poisoned.
The marriage was rocky. They had financial problems. He drank. Both cheated. Eventually, the MacLeods separated, divorcing in 1906.
Zelle moved to Paris in 1905 and become an exotic dancer. There, she changed her name to Mata Hari and invented a background story. She had lived in Malaysia with her husband for several years and used this knowledge as a source for her stories.
Her popularity grew. She was willing to appear half naked – she kept her breasts, which she was self conscious of, covered – in a day and age when the closest thing in terms of sexuality on stage was women flashing their underwear.
Despite her success, she was not careful with money and relied on gifts from men.
World War I
Zelle was in Berlin when the war started and eventually left for Amsterdam.
She had a large number of lovers, many of whom were military officers.
During the trial, she was accused of using her connections to spy for Germany and that information she passed on to the enemy led to the deaths of thousands of Allies.
She denied this but admitted to passing along some outdated information. In addition, she said she was seeking help from a German duke for the Allies.
The French suspected she was a double agent and sentenced her to death.
On Oct. 15, 1917 she was shot outside Paris by a French firing squad. She calmly said, “I am ready” when it came to leave her cell and refused to wear a blindfold.
The Germans exonerated her in 1930. The French have yet to do so, although the government did release a dossier in 2017.
Historians believe she didn’t pass along any information that was damaging and that her trial was riddled with prejudice and rumor.
A collection of Zelle’s letters paints a picture of an abused wife and a scapegoat.
“She had always been used to talking with officers, going out with them, dancing with them, living with them,” museum curator Hans Groeneweg says. “In a totally different surrounding, in wartime, those officers that she loved so much were against her.
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Updated: 20 October 2020
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