While doing research about WWI, the name of Margaretha Zelle Mcleod popped up. Of course, she’s more familiarly known as the femme fatale, exotic dancer Mata Hari. She became one of the most infamous names in the history of espionage but how clever she might have been is not as evident as her purported guilt.
Born in the Netherlands, Zelle accepted a proposal from a Dutch military officer many years her senior and sailed away to Java to a marriage with an alcoholic husband. After years of abuse, he left her, taking their daughter with him. Margaretha had already lost a son to a tragic death, but regained custody following divorce and left Java. After placing her daughter in the care of her family in Holland, she reappeared in Europe with a new name, Mata Hari.
Resourceful, she became an overnight sensation with her early version of a striptease, became involved in various liaisons, and eventually infamous for shocking, near-naked photos, as much as for the exotic dances learned while in Java. Her relationships with powerful men included rich French businessmen, military officers of high rank and a German prince.
As a performer, she could move without suspicion across national boundaries, and this ease of travel during wartime brought her to the attention and suspicion of the French and the Germans. Even though the French did not confirm it, she told the British she worked for the French. It also appeared that she worked for the Germans, since she carried a check from the Germans when she was arrested in Paris. The Germans had given Hari a secret name, H-21, and a task in a code they knew the French had broken. From the gist of what’s been written, it looks like both sides wanted to get rid of her. She couldn’t be controlled and charged a lot for her services. After her arrest, it took the French, by one accounting, only forty-five minutes to decide her guilt, even though they provided no solid evidence at the time of her conviction.
Mari Hari insisted on her innocence and that she worked for the Allies. Former lovers petitioned for clemency. Nothing stopped the rush to condemn her or to place on her the blame for the deaths of thousands of Frenchmen. As I read that I couldn’t help but think about all the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were ordered out of the trenches when the whistle blew and to advance directly into machinegun fire. No one ever considered that murder. I don’t defend Hari’s actions, but think there’s a mighty fine line when it comes to finger-pointing and placing blame.
From what I’ve read, and it’s certainly not an in-depth study, (yet) Hari comes off as incredibly gullible or overly confident. But what if she were neither, and earning a living for herself, her daughter, and a young lover the only way she knew how? Before her own patents divorced, she’d lived in luxury, attended fine schools and had been brought up to please a doting father and uncle. What if she knowingly walked into the trap the Germans had set up? Why would she do that? Was it overconfidence or a last ditch appeal?
On an October morning before dawn, Hari was chauffeured to her death. She’d been allowed to write two letters to be given to her lawyer. A British reporter witnessed the execution. He wrote that she refused the use of a blindfold and stood unbound, facing down twelve rifles without emotion. After she fell, a non-commissioned officer shot her in the head.
One article states that records unearthed in 1970 proved that Hari did work for the Germans, and that seems plausible, since she showed up in Paris with a German check. To the end, she maintained her claim of working as an agent of France and that the check was compensation for German destruction of her expensive wardrobe. Most online articles continue to sensationalize her memory, her culpability, and don’t bother to mention where she was buried.