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Mata Hari Essay, Research Paper

During the First World War, many people were accused of being spies and helping the enemy. One of them, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, has gone down in history as one of the most legendary women of all time. Using the pseudonym Mata Hari, Margaretha led a career as an exotic dancer, was accused of spying for the Germans, did spy for the French and was executed before a firing squad. Mata Hari?s trial was clearly unfair and the evidence was weak at best. When we examine her background, the events that actually occurred, and examples of other trials at the time, we can see that Mata Hari faced discrimination and ignorance.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in Holland in 1876. She despised her father and in order to get away from him, she answered a classified ad. The ad was from Colonel Rudolph MacLeod, a man in his forties who spent most of his time stationed in the Dutch East Indies. The two met, and 19-year-old Margaretha enchanted Rudolph. They married and lived in Holland for about four years, until Rudoph?s leave ended and he was sent back to Java.

Rudolph would frequently leave Margaretha at home alone, and on these long days she would perfect her skills at Javanese dancing. Her husband sunk into alcoholism, and Margaretha demanded a divorce. She moved back to Amsterdam and looked for work, but she could find none. Alone and penniless, she packed her bags again and moved to Paris. ?I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris,? she later said.

At first, her luck in Paris was equally sour. She tried to work as an artist?s model, but did not succeed. This is possibly because despite legends to the contrary, Mata Hari was not beautiful. She was nearing middle age when she lived in Paris, and was quite average looking. Despite her misfortune, she persevered. Margaretha contacted a diplomat she had met while she lived in Holland, and he in turn introduced her to several people who owned dance halls.

She soon took on the legendary stage name Mata Hari (meaning “Child of the Dawn” in Hindi or “Eye of the Dawn” in Malay) and performed exotic dances on some of Paris? most prestigious stages. Her nude dances were respected because of the supposed cultural ties that came from Mata Hari?s extensive lies. She left Margaretha behind and told some audiences she was the daughter of a Buddhist priest and a Dutch girl, while other audiences were informed that she was the child of a British lord and an Indian woman. Nobody questioned these inconsistencies, and Mata Hari packed the Follies Bergeres and the Casino de Paris.

At the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari was busy entertaining important figures in Germany. In Paris, the fascination with the Orient had died down, so Mata Hari moved elsewhere. Her savings were depleting, and she turned to small-time prostitution to pay for her luxurious lifestyle. Men who became rich through the risky business of espionage often called upon Mata Hari and paid for her services out of their own pockets. The French government was suspicious of Mata Hari- she had prominent political figures (and political threats) in her company almost all the time. So for three years the Allies monitored her comings and goings, denying her access to both England and France. Near the end of her stay in Germany, the German government asked her to spy for them. Not wanting to get into trouble, she promised she would. Mata Hari never fulfilled her promise, and this greatly angered the German government.

Around this time Mata Hari met Vladimir de Masloff, a Russian captain. He was twenty years younger than she, but they fell in love regardless. Soon after their meeting he was injured in war and sent to the French town of Vittel to recover. Mata Hari was unable to go see him, because Vittel was in the military zone and a visitors pass was hard to come by. De Masloff suggested Mata Hari speak with Georges Ladoux, who worked at the French Military Bureau for Foreigners. Visiting Ladoux was Mata Hari?s greatest mistake.

Ladoux gave a visitors pass to Mata Hari, after making her promise ?that you won?t seduce any French officers.? He also suggested that she could help the Allied cause by spying on Axis officials. A month later she returned to his office. A deal was made in which the French government would pay her for any important information (the deal was estimated to be around one million francs and aide in paying off numerous debts) she obtained from German officials.

Mata Hari never made it to Germany. The French government immediately shipped her off to Spain, where she was supposed to obtain information from Major Arnold Kalle. In order to win his trust, Mata Hari leaked a few minor pieces of Allied gossip about the Greek princess Marie Bonaparte and British/French disagreements. In turn Kalle slipped the news that German and Turkish submarines were planning to land on the Moroccan coast. She sent this information through regular mail to Ladoux, and waited in Spain for further instructions. What she did not know was that Ladoux was sitting in his French office, convinced Mata Hari was a spy, and he was looking for ways to prove it.

Meanwhile, the Germans were still hostile towards Mata Hari. They knew the French were already suspicious of her actions, so they sent messages between Spain and Berlin that referred to Agent H31. One of these messages detailed the information Mata Hari told Kalle, thus convincing the Allies that she was leaking information. These messages were written in a code the Germans knew the Allies had already cracked, and when they were intercepted by a listening post on the Eiffel Tower, they were all the evidence Ladoux needed to arrest Mata Hari. She was arrested in 1917 and held in Saint-Lazare, a French prison-hospital.

The only evidence the French had was the intercepted messages, and that was hardly enough to prove her guilt. So they searched every square inch of her belongings and subjected her to repeated interrogations. They could find no evidence of anti-Entente activities, except the large payments she received from German officials. The French assumed the government had paid her this money for her spying duties, but in fact it was payment from German officials for her services as a dancer and prostitute.

During her trial, several truths were revealed. Mata Hari had in fact been offered a job spying for the Germans, and she was given both a code number and a payment of 20,000 francs. However, it was re-established that the payment was not for spying but for dancing. They established that she spent most of her time accompanied by military men. Mata Hari agreed and explained that she was attracted to officers. After all, hadn?t she been married to one?

The trial dragged on, and the prosecution could find little evidence against her. They continued to bring up Mata Hari?s relationships with prominent political figures, and she continued to deny that she was providing them with information. The only evidence they had was her income from Axis officials, and she could easily explain where it came from. It was unreasonable for the French government to overlook the fact that first and foremost Mata Hari was an exotic, nude dancer and a prostitute, then a spy for their own government. She had done absolutely nothing that proved her to be working for the Axis powers.

At the end of the trial, the jury was asked to pronounce their verdict on eight questions. They included:

5. The aforementioned [Margaretha Geertruida Zelle] is she guilty, in Paris of having maintained intelligence with Germany, an enemy power?

6. The same, is she guilty, in Madrid of having maintained intelligence with Germany, in the person of the military attache, von Kalle?

7. The same, is she guilty, of having delivered to Germany, documents or information susceptible of damaging the operations of the army, or to endanger the safety of places, posts, or other military establishments, said documents dealing in particular with interior politics?

The fifth charge refers to whether she actually obtained any information for Germany while in Paris during the time immediately before Ladoux asked her to work for the French. The sixth and seventh charges asked the jury to decide whether the ?information? she supplied Kalle (which was readily available in most French gossip papers), constituted information.

The council unanimously declared Mata Hari guilty, and she was sentenced to death. Her request for clemency was denied. On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was executed before a firing squad. She refused to have her wrists tied to the stake, and she also asked not to be blindfolded. Immediately before she was shot, Mata Hari blew a kiss to the firing squad. Eleven shots later, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle lay dead on the ground.

The killing of Mata Hari led to some public outcry. In 1915, a British nurse named Edith Cavil was executed by the Germans for helping allied soldiers escape the neutral territory. The Allies were outraged by the execution and publicly expressed their opinion that a woman?s life is a sacred thing and should not be taken away. If this was their belief, then why would they execute a woman with such circumstantial evidence? Germans saw this British hypocrisy and took the opportunity to gain support. They manufactured change purses with Cavell on one side and Mata Hari on the other, to remind housewives of the false virtuousness the Allies projected.

Now, over eighty years later the legend of Mata Hari lives on; she has been immortalized in both film and theatre. After Mata Hari?s execution, the idea of the femme fatale was dramatically changed- it was no longer her body that made her dangerous- it was her brain. Female spies came and went (most notably Lydia Stahl, a Russian woman who spoke five languages and had a doctorate in law), but none caught the imagination of the public like Mata Hari.

Mata Hari led a difficult early life, but reached the peak of success shortly before the war. She was a victim of wartime hysteria, and outdated ideas of gender roles. Allied officials felt threatened by a woman who could hold so much power with governments on both sides, so they did the only thing they could. Despite not only the lack of evidence but evidence that proved the prosecution to be completely off base, the French government had its way. Hypocrisy, prejudice and fear ran rampant during the First World War, and Mata Hari was an unfortunate victim.


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