October 15, 2007

October 15 | Mata Hari

August 7, 1876 - October 15, 1917: Age 41

Mata Hari is remembered as the embodiment of espionage and wartime double-dealing — and in a way, she was. But she had no particular interest in spying either for the Germans or the French. She was interested in surviving.

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in a middle-class family in Holland, Mata Hari slept with her headmaster at the age of 16 and got expelled. Two years later she married a soldier 22 years her senior, but her equal in sexual promiscuity. They had two children before separating (the boy died at a young age and the girl lived only to the age of 21). The split was not amicable, and her husband vindictively cut off all her funds and took out an ad proclaiming himself not responsible for her debts.

Cut off from legitimate means of support, Zelle turned to other means of support. She moved to Paris and set herself up as an exotic dancer and courtesan, and lived very well indeed. Her admirers were numbers; her patrons rich and powerful. At the outset of the First World War she was living and performing in Berlin. In the belligerent and reactionary atmosphere public opinion turned against her, and she moved back to Amsterdam.

There, broke and with an uncertain future, she was approached by the German consul with a proposal to spy for the Germans. He gave her 20,000 francs and some invisible ink. According to biographer Pat Shipman she didn't take him seriously, simply accepted the money as recompense for the money and furs that had been confiscated from her in Berlin, and threw away the invisible ink.

The French government were aware of her supposed role with German intelligence, and were determined to unmask and punish her. They offered her espionage work, but turned her efforts into evidence of her spying for the Germans, arresting her in February 1917. At the time the French were under a lot of public pressure to "do something" about spies, and Zelle was a perfect scapegoat. She was convicted and sentenced to face a firing squad.

Mata Hari's whole life was a performance. She pretended to like certain men, to know sacred exotic Eastern dances, to spy for the Germans. When she really did try to spy for the French, she was betrayed. She had one more performance left. On September 29 she dressed in her best clothes, fixed her hair and makeup, was driven to Vincennes and strode out into the damp woods with her executioners. She refused to be tied or blindfolded, and blew a kiss to her lawyer (an ex-lover) and priest while waiting for the order to fire. "The sun was coming up when the shots rang out. Zelle slumped to the ground. The officer in charge marched forward and fired a single bullet into her brain, the coup de grace. An extraordinary life was over." (Tony Rennell, The Daily Mail, August 10, 2007)

Sources: First World War.com, Daily Mail

No comments: