Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 267th installment in the series. 

February 13, 1917: French Arrest Mata Hari 

It’s strangely fitting that the most notorious spy of the First World War was probably guilty of nothing more than self-aggrandizement and bad judgment. 

The exotic dancer and courtesan known as Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida in 1876, to a middle-class Dutch family with aspirations to social refinement; her father was a struggling hat-maker and her mother a low-ranking aristocrat with expensive tastes. Although citizens of the Netherlands their ancestry traced back to northern Germany, giving “Margreet” a cosmopolitan air, which was only reinforced by her dark features and “ethnic” appearance, fueling racist rumors of ancestors from India or Indonesia (echoing a scandalous allegation leveled at Britain’s former First Sea Lord and the inventor of the dreadnought, Jackie Fisher). 

Two years after her father declared bankruptcy, when Margreet was 15 her mother died and she was sent to live with her godfather. Noticing the effect her “exotic” appearance seemed to have on men, when she was 19 years old she responded to a newspaper personals ad placed by a Dutch colonial officer, Rudolf MacLeod, serving in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), seeking a wife. She moved to the Indies to be with MacLeod, married, and had two children by him, but tragically her older son was fatally poisoned, apparently by an angry servant.  

This tragedy spelled the end of their brief, tumultuous marriage, and following their return to Europe in 1901 Margreet left for Paris, where she parlayed her (mostly fictional) exotic background and appearance into a career as a dancer, supposedly performing the ritual dances of the libidinous Far East – naturally involving a good deal of nudity – under the name “Mata Hari,” translating as “Eye of the Day” in Malay. As expected of someone with such a scandalous occupation, she also worked as a high-class prostitute as she toured the capitals of Europe’s cosmopolitan pre-war social scene, notching up countless lovers, including assignations with many of the continent’s most famous and powerful men. 

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As it happened, May 1914 found Mata Hari in Berlin, where she had a brief affair with a German officer in the “morals” (vice) division. On the outbreak of war she tried to return to Paris, hoping to reconnect with old patrons there, arousing the suspicions of German officials who confiscated all her property, leaving her destitute. Undaunted as always, she managed to reestablish herself in the Netherlands as the mistress of a Dutch baron, and by December 1915 she was back in Paris, visiting all her old haunts and patrons. There she met and fell in love with a much younger Russian officer, the 21-year-old Vladimir de Masloff, who seemed to be equally infatuated with the aging dancer.

Fake Spy, Real Spy 

However Mata Hari was also already falling under suspicion from Allied intelligence agencies. The chief French counterintelligence officer, George Ladoux, believed (with no evidence beyond her amorous encounter with the German police officer) that she had accepted an offer from German intelligence to become a paid operative, using her liaisons with powerful men to gain access to key secrets, which she would pass back via unidentified handlers.

In fact, Mata Hari had been approached by a German agent in May 1916 in the Netherlands, and accepted an offer of 20,000 francs to work for Germany, along with a codename, “H21” – but all in bad faith, she would later insist, claiming she went along chiefly out of a desire to recoup the earlier loss of her property at the hands of German officials. Unfortunately for her, this misstep would come to light when France’s fortunes were at a particularly low ebb. 

The suspicion of Mata Hari was part of a new wave of spy mania that swept France in 1917, as politicians, the press, and government propaganda sought answers (or excuses) for the nation’s continuing inability to expel foreign invaders, who always seemed to be one step ahead of them – literally, in the case of the German Army’s impending strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Amid growing social unrest at home and mutinous rumblings at the front, the logical scapegoat was internal betrayal by people of dubious background, reviving the xenophobic and anti-Semitic themes of the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906.

The demonization also reflected a number of overlapping fears and insecurities resulting from social and cultural trends, which had gripped France and the rest of Europe by the third year of the war. These included widespread distrust of foreigners, including not just the enemy but also unreliable Allies and potentially treacherous neutrals, as well as unease over women’s growing economic power, and moral panic over the changing sexual mores of the younger generations (typified by parental concern about young women volunteering at hospitals where they could mix with men, and over young men at the front visiting prostitutes and contracting venereal disease). Deviant sex, espionage and blackmail were closely entwined in the popular imagination, thanks in part to the pre-war Redl affair and Caillaux affair

Although surveillance turned up nothing incriminating, Ladoux was so convinced that Mata Hari was a spy that he offered to make her a double agent in return for large sums of money, with a new mission of infiltrating Germany’s web of spies in France and abroad. Already under suspicion of being a German spy, in constant need of money, and with her lucrative dancing career mostly behind her, Mata Hari happily accepted the offer to become a real spy for France. 

Unfortunately for her this glamorous new career proved brief and fatal. On her first and only “mission” she traveled to Belgium and then Spain, and in November 1916 she continued her journey via Britain. When the ship put in at Cornwall, however, British agents arrested her on suspicion of being a spy and took her back to London. Here she told interrogators that she was indeed a spy – but one working for French counterintelligence. 

For some reason (perhaps excessive secrecy, or just fear of looking amateurish to his British colleagues) Ladoux now denied any connection with Mata Hari. Nevertheless the Brits, probably concluding that a washed-up exotic dancer was too implausible to be a real spy, released her and shipped her back to Spain. In December 1916, still hoping to prove her worth to Ladoux, she seduced the German military attaché in Madrid, Major Arnold Kalle, stringing him along with worthless gossip and made-up secrets about French politics, and eliciting what she believed were important military secrets in return. 

This piece of extracurricular espionage proved her undoing. The amateur spy failed to deduce that Kalle had realized exactly what she was up to, and was feeding her out-of-date and made-up information, deceiving her just as she believed she was deceiving him. When she passed these bogus “secrets” on to Ladoux, it only seemed to confirm that she was in fact a German double agent, as he’d originally suspected. Worse still, on December 13, 1916 French spies monitoring German radio traffic detected a secret transmission from Kalle to Berlin, in which he passed along secrets he attributed to her, using her codename “H21” – even though she claimed that she only received this codename recently. For this codename to already be known to Berlin, Ladoux concluded, she must have been in communication with German intelligence long before, and had therefore been hoodwinking the French all along.

However Ladoux failed to see that this was was all in fact an elaborate counterintelligence gambit perpetrated by Germany’s spymasters. The Germans were aware that the Allies had cracked this particular cipher, and were using it with the knowledge any messages they sent would be decoded, all in an attempt to sow confusion and hopefully trick the French into revealing some of their intelligence assets. Caught in the middle of this war of deceit was Mata Hari, a cheerful opportunist who now found herself far out of her depth.

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After she returned to France, on February 13, 1917, at Ladoux’s order French counterintelligence agents arrested Mata Hari as a German agent. Taken to military prison, she immediately denied the charges, writing, “I am innocent. Someone is fooling with me,” and blaming “French counterespionage, since I am in its service, and I have only acted on its instructions.” Nonetheless her notorious reputation, and her habit of embellishing or fictionalizing parts of her own past, effectively signed her death warrant: the French press and public were all too ready to believe that a foreign woman, famed for her loose morals and ability to seduce powerful men, had sold out the Republic, leading to the deaths of thousands of brave young Frenchmen. 

Mata Hari’s trial began on July 24, 1917, but with cards stacked against the 41-year old former exotic dancer, its outcome was never really in doubt. The prosecutors never presented any proof that she had actually been working for German intelligence, except for a mysterious receipt showing a payment of 5,000 francs, which it turned out was actually a gift from her old lover the baron (sent anonymously, of course, to protect his reputation). The court also prevented her defense lawyers from calling the baron or Mata Hari’s maid in the Netherlands to testify to clear up this apparently incriminating detail. 

The government did present evidence of her numerous encounters with French officers and officials – suggesting (but hardly proving) that she had extracted secrets from them; unsurprisingly, virtually none of her old lovers came forward to testify on her behalf, as this would have tarnished their reputation as well. Then the court heard of the ill-fated trip to Spain, the arrest by British intelligence in Cornwall, and the intercepted radio messages in a cracked cipher, which nobody knew had been sent on purpose to seal her doom. Most damning, Mata Hari herself admitted to receiving the codename “H21” earlier than she had previously stated, at the May 1916 meeting.

Duly convicted on eight charges of espionage, on October 15, 1917, “the greatest woman spy of the century,” who was in reality no such thing, was shot at 5 a.m. by a firing squad of twelve men at a barracks in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris. Her final words: “It is unbelievable.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.