Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre, where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.
She Came, She Danced, She Mesmerized
At the turn of the century a young, exotic striptease dancer was mesmerizing Europe with her titillating eastern-inspired dances. She called herself Mata Hari (“eye of the dawn” in the Malay language).
With dark hair, eye-catching bejeweled costumes, an angelic face on top of a lithe body, and a mysterious past spanning across continents, she became insanely popular across Europe. Her daring belly dances coupled with her infamous “man-eater” reputation appealed to audiences all over Europe as powerful men across countries turned to putty within her hands.
But her life took a tragic turn, leading to her downfall and finally a conviction of treason and death during World War I. Convicted by the French of passing secrets to the enemy during the first world war, her prosecutors declared her the “greatest sex spy of the century”, responsible for sending more than 20,000 Allied soldiers to their deaths.
Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a. “Mata Hari,” met her end at age 41 at the hands of a firing squad outside Paris, more than 100 years ago on Oct. 15, 1917.
The Story of Mata Hari
Margaretha (“Gretha” for short) Zelle was born on August 7, 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Her father owned a hat shop and was one of the wealthiest persons in the town.
However, due to bad investments, the Zelle family became bankrupt and her parents divorced when she was just 14. Her father remarried and sent Zelle to live with other members of the family in The Hague
At 18, Zelle fell in love with a Dutch Captain Rudolf MacLeod. The two married in 1895 and moved to the island of Java in Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies). But the marriage was not a very happy one as MacLeod was a habitual drinker and kept a mistress.
The couple had two children, both of whom fell very ill in 1899. Their son, Norman, died that year at the age of two, but his sister, Jeanne Louise, survived. It was somewhere at this point, that the couple separated.
She Becomes Famous All Over Europe
Her daughter initially stayed with her but with MacLeod refusing to pay child support and jobs being very difficult to get for women in the 1900s, Zelle made a difficult decision to go to Paris, leaving her daughter behind.
At first, Zelle turned to prostitution to support herself but soon she started to make her name as a belly dancer. And after a fabulous show at the Musée Guimet in Paris. Zelle alias “Mata Hari” became famous all over Europe as the sexy, exotic Javanese dancer.
Powerful men started flocking around her and a string of high-profile affairs ensured her a high-profile lifestyle of comfort and money. In fact, she was so famous that she was allowed to cross borders with comparatively little hassle.
She seduced the wealthy and powerful from multiple nations, including high-ranking government officials. But the strange thing was that she wasn’t a man-eater as portrayed. In fact, her prison letters held in the French military archives reveal that she hated sex thanks to her husband. As she says.
“My husband has given me a distaste for matters sexual.”
But her amorous life coupled with her reputation of ‘shamelessly’ seducing military officers from all nationalities made her the ‘perfect’ scapegoat in the difficult times that were to come for her.
She Was Caught and Executed
What happened next was not clear. It is still not confirmed when the needle of suspicion turned towards her, whether it was her activities or her frequent border crossings, or her liaisons with military officers. But the French started keeping a close watch on her.
And among her lovers was Major Arnold Kalle, a German military attaché. He transmitted a coded message using a code that he knew the French had already cracked, revealing the activities of a spy named H-21.
The French intercepted this message and identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Whether this was a genuine mistake or deliberately set off by the Germans, is not clear.
The French caught her and found her guilty of espionage and after a highly publicized courtroom trial, she was executed at the age of 41. Mata Hari protested her innocence vehemently during the trial but her pleas went unanswered.
Was She a Spy or a Scapegoat?
However, historians and military officers across the world still argue whether she was a spy at all. France in 1917 was war-weary, the morale of the people was down and the economy was in the doldrums.
Mata Hari provided the perfect scapegoat for an ‘immoral foreigner’ who was betraying the country. Attention needed to be diverted and Mata Hari’s trial was the perfect platform to do so. And by executing this woman, the government showed that it can ‘walk the talk’.
The German government exculpated Mata Hari of any wrongdoing in 1930. But the French have been tight-lipped so far, although some papers pertaining to her have been released in 2017. But it remains to be seen whether history will judge her as an eternal feminist or as a notorious sex spy who betrayed the lives of thousands of people.
As the famous Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo who has written a bestseller book on her, The Spy rightly says.
“Mata Hari was one of our first feminists, defying male expectations of that time and choosing instead an independent, unconventional life.”
- Mata Hari's True Story Remains a Mystery 100 Years After Her Death
- 10 facts about Mata Hari, the 'greatest woman spy of the century'
- Mata Hari was a scapegoat, not a spy - biographer
- Meet Mata Hari: the famous Dutch First World War spy
- Mata Hari: Super spy or innocent femme fatale?
- Was Mata Hari a good spy?
- Mata Hari: The Female Spy Whose Mystery The World Could Never Uncover
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ravi Rajan