Mata Hari: 100 years since WWI spy was executed

 | Updated: Oct 11, 2017, 10:31 AM IST
Exotic dancer and suspected double agent Mata Hari was executed in Paris 100 years ago

Early life

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands, she fled to Paris in 1903 aged 27 to start a new life after a rancorous divorce. Her marriage had been to an older army officer who was based in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, where she lived for some years.

Mata Hari: Eye of the Day

After fleeing to Paris, the tall beauty reinvented herself, becoming a dancer in a striptease act and taking the name "Mata Hari", Indonesian for "Eye of the Day", apparently a reference to the sun.

Exotic dancer

Her fame as an exotic beauty quickly spread across Europe and she became a celebrity, also raising eyebrows for her many love affairs.

Her Oriental "sacred dances" pushed the boundaries of pre-war Europe and often saw her appearing to wear little more than a bejewelled brassiere. She brought a carefree provocative style to the stage in her act. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jewelled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head.

A notorious spy

By 1914, however, her popularity was waning. She became a call girl in Paris, entertaining ministers and becoming known for her extravagant parties. Broke, due to her lavish lifestyle, she accepted in 1916 an offer from a German diplomat to pay off her debts if she spied on France.

Mata Hari then offered her services to France's counter-espionage bureau where agents were already suspicious of her. The French suspicions deepened when she requested a pass to travel to Vittel, near the eastern front and where a new military aerodrome was being built. She said her visit was to meet a young Russian officer who was her lover. Then in January 1917, the French authorities intercepted a cable from Germany appearing to identify Mata Hari as their "Agent H 21".

She was arrested and charged with being a double agent.


Arrest and execution

On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was executed in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes, President Raymond Poincare having refused her request for clemency. She faced a firing squad, accused of spying for Germany during World War I.

Witnesses wrote that she wore a long, black velvet cloak with fur trimmings and a large square fur collar. She is said to have declined a blindfold and blew kisses to her executors.

Asked by a military clerk whether she had any last revelations, she replied: "None, and if I had, I would keep them to myself."