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Mata Hari, or the fatal banter...

Earth Thought Notebooks
History & strategy
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Mata Hari... 100 years ago, within a few months, the most famous spy of the Great War was arrested, convicted and executed. Who among the readers of the Notebooks has never been interested in the history and life of this extraordinary woman, in the writings or films she inspired? But as the author of this article points out, reality has been so distorted over the years that it is difficult today to disentangle the true from the false in the journey of this adventuress.

We therefore warmly thank Lieutenant-Colonel Lahaie, a faithful contributor to the Cahiers, for restoring the truth in this article, thanks to a rigorous research work. history.

MataHari... Rarely has an espionage case generated so much writing and debate, so much passion. The destiny of the Dutch dancer has been the source of stories so fanciful that it is difficult to see clearly? even today? to see clearly. Fortunately, the file of the 3rd council of war which judged her has been kept in its entirety at the Historical Service of Defence (Château de Vincennes). We used it to return to the facts themselves. We have also called upon the most trustworthy testimonies to find out Mata Hari's motivations. In order to return to the sources of the truth, it will thus be necessary, in the first place, to re-establish an exact chronology of what was? let us say it from now on? a flagrant espionage offence, to answer the question that some people persist in asking against all odds: "Was an innocent woman - an international star and luxury prostitute - shot in order to serve as a stooge for the French counter-espionage (C.E.) services"?

From Margaretha Geertruida Zelle to Mata Hari

MargarethaGeertruida Zelle was born on 7 August 1876 in Leeuwarden, Holland. At the age of 18, she married a Dutch naval officer, 19 years her senior, Rudolf MacLeod, with whom she went to live in East Java. There she learns a few words of Javanese and is introduced to localdances. Two children are born, one of whom dies in 1899. In 1902, the couple returned to The Hague and separated. In November 1903, Marguerite Zelle arrived in Paris. She calls herself "Lady MacLeod" and, in order to survive, is maintained, half-courtisan, half-prostitute...

At the beginning of 1905, she began to compose her role as an oriental dancer. Émile Guimet, a wealthy orientalist, invited her to come and dance in the library of the museum he had founded, which had been transformed into a Hindu temple for the occasion. Under the pseudonym "MataHari"? which means "rising sun" in Malay? she triumphs there in a half-erotic, half-exotic number. Slim, dark and sensual, she appears almost naked in front of her audience. She dares everything in this society of the first 20th century, which is still extremely rigid... Men are bewitched. Faced with her Parisian success, Gabriel Astruc becomes her impresario. She performed at the Olympiain August 1905; the artist earned 10,000 francs per show. Dressed in sumptuous oriental outfits, as imaginary as they were light, she then travelled around the European capitals, watched by journalists who delighted in her confidences, taking her many inventions about her past as her own. A true courtesan, she likes to hang out with officers and politicians, with little concern for their nationality (which she will be accused of at her trial). In 1907, she stayed in Berlin and became the lover of Lieutenant Alfred Kiepert. He forces her to stop her shows. They end up separating. Back in Paris, Mata Hari's career is struggling to get off the ground; indebted, she is reduced to playing in more popular shows and does not hesitate to prostitute herself in brothels. In February 1914 in Berlin, a member of the German intelligence service (S.R.) already offered her a job. At the end of July, the artist remembers her former lover Adolphe Messimy, then Minister of War, in her memory... The outbreak of the war ended up ruining her. In September, she returns to Holland.

The spy "H. 21"

In December 1914, in The Hague, Carl Krämer - German consul general and intermediary of the secret service - hires Mata Hari. Star of spectacle, polyglot, she travels a lot and will thus be less suspected of going from one country to another... She accepts 30.000 marks to bring back information from France. In January 1915, the French counter-espionage which follows her worries about her activities; but one does not note any grievance against her. She sold her luxury hotel in Neuilly-sur-Seine and chose to return to The Hague to live a more modest life.

In November, Krämer goes to Mata Hari and offers her another 20,000 francs to bring back information from Paris. She accepts, this time officially becoming Agent "H. 21». She receives three vials (a secret ink and its revelators) to write her reports. Mata Hari embarks for France, via England. When her ship is boarded by the English, she throws her vials overboard. She was forced to disembark at Folkestone to be interrogated by "MI 5" [1] who wanted to knowher true identity. She was released. On December 3rd, she is in Paris and frequents a number of officers, as well as the Marquis Pierre de Clergerie who encrypts messages from the Quai d'Orsay. Needless to say, she was followed by inspectors from the Sûreté générale...

On 10 January 1916, Mata Hari opted to return to Holland via Barcelona and Lisbon. In Spain, she is jointly supervised by the English and the French... In February, a report from "MI 5" is worried about the troubled personality of the dancer.

Back in her country, Mata Hari is greeted by Krämer; she gives him some gossip, gleaned in the capital... In April, Colonel Nicolaï (head of the German S.R.) studies Mata Hari's file. She is described as a "mediocre agent" whose training must be "resumed if something is to be gained from it". In the first week of May, she undergoes special training in Frankfurt, with fair results. Her trainer says: "She was surprisingly easy to adapt, but had no aptitude for espionage. Superficial in her observations, untimely in her rare initiatives, inconsistent and passive on special occasions, she was always unable to assimilate the essential data of sympathetic inks and encryption". "«H. 21" was sent back to Paris, with a fee of 15,000 francs. On 17 June, she arrives on the spot; the dancer, a suspect, is constantly followed by the police and military counter-espionage... She does not go very far, and it is noted that she frequents a lot of Franco-British officers.

A month later, a report informed Captain Georges Ladoux, head of the "Section de centralisation des renseignements" [2], that Mata Hari intended to go to Vittel for treatment, but that she feared she would not obtain the necessary authorisations.

Ladoux is thinking of offering to facilitate her steps, wishing to return her to make her a double agent. On 31 July, "the Zelle woman" (as specified in the spying reports) is refused her pass to go to Vittel, as the town is locatedShe was advised to go to the "Bureau des étrangers" at 282, boulevard Saint-Germain, the address which also houses Ladoux's office. On August1st, the first meeting between Mata Hari and the captain took place. He offered to hire her. She did not give her opinion on this proposal, simply asking for a pass to Vittel (which Ladoux refused).

The Dutchwoman visited Pierre de Margerie[3] to ask him for advice on a potential engagement in the French secret service; he tried to dissuade her.

Things could then end there? and Ladoux's plans could collapse in on themselves? if, at times, fate did not manifest itself... Indeed, on August 3, Mata Hari meets the man who will be her last love and, without a doubt, a determining figure in the course of events. It is Captain Vadim Massloff, an officer in the 1st Russian Special Regiment, who is twenty years younger than her. On the 8th, the dancer returns to Ladoux. If she manages to leave for Vittel, Massloff - who, wounded, is convalescing in Châlons-sur-Marne - will be able to come and see her. So she agrees to consider Ladoux's proposal. On the 28th, Mata Hari obtains her permit to stay in the army zone.

On the1st September, it is still under close surveillance that she goes down to the "Grand Hôtel des Bains". On the 16th, she saw Ladoux again in Paris; she confirmed that she agreed to work for him in Germany or in occupied Belgium: "I will attend the German staff in Belgium. I don't intend to hang around there for several months in small businesses. I'll do one big job, one big one, and then I'll leave. I'm asking for a million". The rate is high, but Ladoux seems to find it acceptable. However, he says to him, "If you betray us, you will find out that we know about it before the council of war". Troubled, the dancer leaves her office without bothering to ask for an advance, even though she is penniless. To finance her trip, she has the audacity to ask the Reich's secret service for 5,000 francs in the form of a cheque which she will withdraw at the Discount Counter!

On October 17, Mata Hari goes to the premises of the Central Intelligence Section (S.C.R.) and, in the evening, sends a telegram to Ladoux. She sent a second telegram on the 19th. On the 20th, 23rd, and 31st, she returned to the offices of the C.I.S.R.

On November 4, Mata Hari receives her cheque, sent by her servant to the Dutch consul in Paris. The next day, she took the train to Madrid. There, the German military attaché von Kalle gave her another 3,500 pesetas. Finally, the same attaché, in a radiogram to her chiefs, informed them that, as soon as she was due to return to Paris, "agent H. 21 wishes to receive, without delay, through the intermediary of his servant Anna Lintyens, the German consul in Amsterdam and the Dutch consul in Paris, another cheque for 5,000 francs". On the 9th, Mata Hari's boat, which was on its way to France, was diverted to Falmouth by the British; she was interrogated by the Special Branch ofScotland Yard. The E.C. seems to take her for a certain Clara Bénédix, another enemy spy... She confides to the investigators that she is part of the Belgian and French secret services. Consulted by telegraph, Ladoux denies knowing the dancer and asks that she be sent back to Spain. On the 21st, Mata Hari left Liverpool; she arrived in Madrid on 8 December. On the spot, she was constantly followed by agents of the Sûreté. She wrote to Ladoux to tell him of her setbacks, then to Kalle, the German attaché; she requested an interview with him, which she obtained. She gave him false information and asked for another 10,000 francs (which Kalle did not pay). In the evening, she sends a report to Ladoux.

On the 11th, the dancer confides to Colonel Denvignes - French military attaché in Madrid - that she works for the French S.R. and tells him about her visit to Kalle. Two days later, the German attaché begins a curious exchange of telegrams with Berlin... While he gives an account of his dealings with Mata Hari and asks for instructions, he uses an outdated secret code that the German secret service knows has been broken by the French. Moreover, without expressly naming Marguerite Zelle, he gives a series of details that enable investigators to trace her. However, these messages, picked up by the TSF station at the Eiffel Tower, will later be used to confuse the spy... On the 13th, Kalle sends two of them. On the 23rd, a third telegram is also intercepted by the French: other clues are again made available to the E.C.; the strongest is that it arrives to Kalle from the Foreign Ministry in Berlin!

Without knowing all this, Mata Hari goes back to Kalle; she receives 3,500 pesetas from him. That same evening, she wrote a long letter to Denvignes giving information she said she had obtained from the German attaché. On the 26th, Kalle telegraphed again to Berlin to give an account of the payment of the sum to "H. 21». In anticipation of the dancer's move to Paris, he commits a further indiscretion which further identifies the agent.

Two days later, Mata Hari asks Kalle to have 5,000 francs sent to the Comptoir d'escompte in Paris. Once again, the attaché immediately reports this to Berlin and specifies that the arrival of "H. 21" in France is imminent. And of course, the text of the communication is captured by the Eiffel Tower...

On January 2, 1917, Mata Hari leaves Madrid; on the 4th, she is in Paris. In the evening, she went to the War Ministry to try to see Ladoux: it was a failure. On the 5th, Berlin worries Kalle about a secret report from "H. 21" which did not reach him. In the meantime, Mata Hari returns to 282, Boulevard Saint-Germain and asks to see Ladoux. He is told that he is absent. Same answer the next day. On the 7th, she manages to be received. Ladoux doubts the value of the information he had transmitted from Madrid. And when she asks to be paid, he refuses. A week later, she wrote to him, once again offering to carry out a mission: "What do you want from me? I am willing to do whatever you want, I don't ask for your secrets, I don't want to know your agents; I am an international woman; don't discuss my means, don't spoil my work by secret agents who can't understand".

On the 16th, Mata Hari had 5,000 francs sent from Holland, through her servant, which she pocketed from the Dutch Consul General in Paris. In the evening, she reconnects with a former lover, who later writes: "I have a strange memory of Mata Hari. The qualities and faults of this complex being were a singular mixture. She combined the wiles of a wild animal with strange naiveté. She was vain and spontaneous, lavish and greedy, secretive and loquacious, willful and whimsical, eager to dominate, thirsty for pleasure and unscrupulous. Instinct was much more important than intelligence, which was mediocre. She lived on fantasies. She let herself be guided by her imagination, and that is what lost her".

On February 3, Massloff met her at her hotel and told her that the Russian C.E. had contacted his colonel to stop seeing her. On this occasion, Mata Hari was described as a "dangerous person" (which she denies in front of her lover). In need of money, she leaves the "Plaza" for the "Élysée-Palace". Since the spy reports have come to nothing and the dancer is about to get her visa for Holland, Ladoux decides to have her arrested. On the 10th, a letter from Lyautey, Minister of War, designates Mata Hari to the governor of Paris as a spy. An order to inform, emanating from the military government of Paris, is transmitted to Captain Bouchardon? reporter to the 3rd council of war? who will issue the warrant to bring her in. Special Commissioner Albert Priolet, of the entrenched camp in Paris, is charged with the arrest.

From arrest to execution (13 February 1917-15 October 1917)

On February 13, the dancer was arrested; the indictment was as follows: "Having, both abroad and in France, maintained intelligence with the agents of an enemy power for the purpose of furthering the undertakings of that power, and being answerable for the crime of having communicated to the latter numerous documents and information concerning the internal policy of France and the offensive of the spring of 1916".

On 6 March, a new telegram, sent from Berlin to Madrid, further reinforced the idea of Mata Hari's guilt among the French. On April 11, Ladoux warned Bouchardon that in order to convict her, he was able to transmit "incontestable" incriminating evidence to the courts; however, he specified that he would prefer that she confess otherwise. Bouchardon therefore urged him to spy on her with questions; let that be the end of it! The latter ferociously denies that she is part of the opposing secret service and claims not to have provided information to Kalle. She claims that the cheques, cashed by her at the Discount Counter, all come from a former lover.

On the 23rd, Mr. Clunet, her lawyer, wrote to Bouchardon to have her released; in fact, her client had been locked up for two months, without any evidence having been found against her... Before her release, Ladoux decided to produce the text of the telegrams received by the Eiffel Tower. The case suddenly becomes clear... On May 1st, Bouchardonproves to Mata Hari that she is "H. 21", telegrams in support. At first she denies that it is her, but faced with the accumulation of evidence and the luxury of details that designate her almost as clearly as if she were named, she collapses. On the 13th, Mata Hari is brought into the presence of Ladoux. On the 21st, she confessed (while lying on a number of compromising points). The next day, a second confrontation with Ladoux; he claims not to have hired her, declaring before Bouchardon: "An agent is hired when he has received a mission, a serial number, means of communication and money. An agent can only be given an assignment when he is sure of it. MacLeod was very suspicious of me". In front of the examining magistrate, the chief of the E.C. justifies his line of conduct by the will to confuse a false double agent... On the 23rd, Bouchardon traps Mata Hari. She admits to having provided information to the enemy S.R., declaring: "In any case, I did not provide any military information!". She is therefore really a spy, albeit on a small scale, but a spy all the same, as a telegram from Berlin shows: "Could do better". A week later, Mata Hari is again confronted with Ladoux; the latter offers her to deliver his accomplices in France to save her head, a proposal that the dancer rejects... On June 21, the investigation of the Mata Hari trial ends; Bouchardon will have questioned the defendant 17 times.

On July 24, the trial opens with the accused's defence. Many of the protagonists whose names will be mentioned are absent... Most of them are former lovers, such as Messimy, and fear for their reputation. Ladoux and Lieutenant-Colonel Goubet (his superior) can develop their version of the facts at their leisure: they are convinced that Mata Hari is a high-flying spy and will do their utmost to convince the jury of this. On the 25th, the indictment and closing arguments take place. The public prosecutor is none other than André Mornet, the same one who will judge Marshal Pétain in 1945. Convicted of the eight charges weighing on her for "espionage" and "intelligence with the enemy", Mata Hari can only be condemned to death... Her lawyer counterattacks, but on August 17, her appeal for revision is rejected. On 27 September, the judgement is confirmed by the Court of Cassation. The Dutch ambassador in Paris asks for the sentence to be commuted, but the French government claims that the evidence against her is overwhelming... Poincaré refuses a presidential pardon. On October 15, while Mata Hari was being dragged from her sleep and told that she was to be executed immediately, she cried out: "It can't be! It's not possible... Oh, those Frenchmen! What good is it going to do them to have killed me; if it would help them win the war... Ah! They'll see! It was well worth it that I did so much for them, and yet I'm not French". To the question: "Don't you have any revelation to make?", put to all the condemned who are about to be executed, "H. 21' answers: 'None. And if I had any, you think I would keep them to myself!". At 06:15 precisely, Mata Hari was shot at the Vincennes Polygon, where spies are executed in the capital.

Three conclusions to be drawn from the Mata Hari case...

  • First conclusionIn a post-war article, the former deputy head of the German S.R. wrote: "Countless fables have been invented about the German secret service; it is said to have performed the most impossible tasks and committed innumerable crimes. Cases such as that of the unfortunate dancer Mata Hari - who in fact did nothing for the German information service - have been singularly exploited. She was good for nothing!". Her former trainer in Frankfurt supports this view: "H. 21 did not harm France. None of the news she sent us was usable; her information was of no political or military interest to us. Her fate is tragic since she died for nothing'. Returning to France in January 1917? while she knew herself to be under surveillance and under suspicion? On the other hand, in a book published in Berlin in 1933, one can read: "Mata Hari did great things for Germany. She was perfectly educated in military matters. Her education had been made among the best specialists of our S.R. She was prudent and skillful. None of the men who knew her could ever conceive the slightest suspicion of what was going on with the most dangerous spy Germany had in her service". There is certainly some exaggeration in each of these opinions.... Mata Hari was certainly a courtesan, a mythomaniac, but above all a neophyte spy. Another flaw was that she was not at all loyal to her employers (whoever they were), since she was motivated solely by the lure of gain.

Ladoux finally admitted it in 1932: "Mata Hari was a soldier of Germany whom she served out of pride or hatred of our race, even more so out of interest (and, fortunately for us, without much profession). Her educator said of her dismissively that she did not render the services we expected, that she was a useless shell... a shell that does not kill!". This is, moreover, the opinion of a secret report, written as early as 1916 in Düsseldorf, which depicted her as "a spy who had never spied on anyone", and above all "overpaid for the work done"! All things considered, the spy dancer never behaved appropriately, since she was a woman who could not bear to go unnoticed. She had some of the qualities required to be a formidable agent, but she had one major flaw: she was too easily noticed wherever she went, and this was a serious threat to her safety. Its use was therefore very dangerous since, by its escapades and greed, it put itself in the position of being confused and stopped at any moment. Its incessant need for money made it an ideal prey for allied counter-espionage. In the event of an arrest, could her silence be counted on? Not at all, for she was "everything"... except faithful! In short, she brought nothing to the Berlin secret service, except complications.

A crucial and yet little-known testimony, collected by a French journalist in 1936, deserves to be quoted here, as it facilitates the understanding of certain obscure elements of this affair. One of the former members of the German S.R., stationed in Madrid during the war, said: "Not only did Mata Hari do us no favours, but I can tell you that at the end of 1916 we ourselves were planning to have her disappear, convinced that she was deceiving us and was one of your informers. Unfortunately, she had close friendships in Germany, and it seemed risky to us to do away with her. The whole story of the telegrams deciphered by you was faked from the beginning... In fact, we set the dancer into a trap, preferring that she be shot by you rather than by us. It's an end often reserved for double agents. We burn them and have them executed by the adversary. How can you think we'd have written our telegrams so explicitly if we hadn't tried to lose the Dutch girl?"

Reporter: "They were encrypted."

The German: "Yes, but we knew that you had discovered our figure, since we had changed it a fortnight ago and the old figure was only used for that one occasion".

But in the end it doesn't matter why and how Mata Hari was confused... Despite her poor qualities, Mata Hari was indeed a Reich agent: on May 23, 1917, the dancer confessed to having passed on information to Germany in return for payment. Of course, this was not purely "military" information, just diplomatic information, bordering on "parlour gossip"... But at the time, military law condemned those guilty of "intelligence with the enemy" to the same penalty as spies, i.e. the death penalty. Mata Hari was therefore "legitimately guilty" under French military law and, as such, she was shot. This is what her defender felt, writing in 1919: "Mata Hari was not innocent, but not so guilty as to deserve death"; but the lawyer expressed his own opinion, not taking into account the reBut the lawyer expressed his own opinion, not taking into account the exceptional regime set up with the war for acts of "espionage" or "intelligence with the enemy". Let us be convinced that this was not a specific persecution in the case of Mata Hari: during the conflict, the death penalty was similarly applied to French agents discovered in Germany... For Bouchardon, on the other hand, the case was "crystal clear"; to sum it up, it was for him nothing more than a flagrant offence, a banal case of purely commercial espionage, like so many other cases during the Great War... Let us recall that the dancer's voluntary approach to enter the world... ...of intelligence was not done in a disinterested manner. When the magistrate recapitulated the total sums received from the Germans, he came up with 34,000 francs, including 14,000 received between November 1916 and January 1917 (i.e. when the dancer was supposed to be working for France). However, these funds came exclusively from the German S.R., and could not be the price of her favours, as she liked to repeat. And when she declared that she had gone out of her way to fool Kalle, Bouchardon pointed out to her that Berlin had never reported that "H. 21" was a traitor, which is why the attaché had continued to pay her. When we know that, at the time, "good information" could be bought between 20,000 and 30,000 francs by the Germans, this tended to prove that for her employers, Mata Hari was a spy "in the norm".

This was certainly an important case for French counter-espionage because, in wartime, treason does not have the same value. Member of the S.R. At the same time, Mata Hari had agreed to work for the French, hoping to earn a million francs on her own account, but there is no greater danger than a double agent who cannot be trusted because of his venality: He can conceal the activities of enemy agents he is supposed to be fighting; he knows the suspected agents and can warn them; and he is able to surprise the secrets ofFinally, he is able to uncover the secrets of the spy service that enlisted him and communicate them to his real employer... Could the French services have taken the risk of enlisting the dancer despite everything? Certainly not, and they had no reason to do so. Mata Hari promised to pull off "the coup du siècle", but she was making up every sentence: how could she ever show the slightest confidence in her?

Even during the investigation of her trial, when she should have been "playing fair" to hope to save her head, Mata Hari lied on many points, points which - unfortunately for her - the deciphering of the German telegrams had brought to light. Firstly, she was not hired in the Reich's secret service in May 1916, since at that time she already had two missions in France to her credit; secondly, having been sent back to France by the Germans, she could only pretend to enter Ladoux's service.

For her part, Ladoux, convinced of her duplicity, pretended to hire her to trap her. He knew she was passing information to the Germans and couldn't trust it.

Without realizing it, Mata Hari put herself in danger by agreeing to serve both sides out of greed. The French S.R. was convinced that the dancer had tried to deceive him... On 24 May 1917, Lieutenant-Colonel Goubet's deposition testified to this.

For Ladoux, who had not really wanted to "return" MataHari and hire her into his service, it was a matter of demonstrating that she was a major catch. He defended this point of view in order to better conceal the proposals for enlistment for which he could have been blamed; he declared that the dancer was an agent of Germany, and had been for a long time. "What surprised me," he said, "was her initial, the 'H,' which we have never encountered since the war among active agents. I was led, without being able to conclude anything, to wonder if it was not a pre-war initial.

For Bouchardon, there was little evidence, but it was weighty and supported by a whole bundle of presumptions... Among the exhibits seized from the hotel room, there was a lot of evidence that was not in the public domain.Among the exhibits seized from the dancer's hotel room, for example, was a tube containing mercury bi-iodide and potassium iodide, substances which the dancer claimed to use as a "condom", but which could be used as a developer for a secret ink. There were also Spanish tablets of mercury oxycyanide, an antiseptic available only on prescription in France. Once diluted, they constituted "a sympathetic ink that was safe from routine investigations," as one expert chemist wrote. And then there was the mail that passed through the Dutch diplomatic pouch (not "to save time", as Mata Hari claimed, but to escape postal control), as well as all those allied officers she had teased. Bouchardon suspected her of collecting confessions on the pillow and practising what is called, in this very particular environment, "horizontal espionage". In Germany, Mata Hari was undoubtedly in contact with influential people; but in wartime, it was difficult for the French C.E. to know which ones and to determine precisely what kind of relationship she had with them. There is no doubt that (given the career of the courtesan) these were short-lived, but by no means disinterested, conquests...

In a letter to Bouchardon, she tried to bargain for her release from the bottom of her cell: "If Captain Ladoux can get me to give me my immediate freedom, and the permit to leave for Holland, I will give him in a month what he has asked to know, and what I know nothing about at present: the details of the organization of espionage in France and in Paris. That is what he wants to know. Well, let him give me the opportunity to deal with it. I do not know about German secrets, but I can know them. Again, this could be a fabrication. There was no lie detector at the time.... The handwriting analysis of Mata Hari's handwriting was only done once in the 1920s. Here is what the specialist wrote about her, without knowing to whom she belonged: "One cannot trust such a versatile, restless, hectic nature, always ready to make extreme determinations. It is a reckless character who misjudges the obstacle, obscurely confident in his destiny, passionate and proud. His very exalted, exaggerated nature obliges him to gag the truth, he realizes the lie in the impulse".

  • Second conclusion to shoot about the Mata Hari case.Even if the dancer was a celebrity, she was convinced "of intelligence with the enemy and? in the same way as other convicts? she was shot for her crimes... To spare her only because she was famous, while others, anonymous, had been shot, would it have been tolerated by the French population? Why would she have been given special treatment at a time when French leaders were saying loud and clear that the time had come for a stiffening of the grip, the only guarantee of victory? The cocardier novelist Louis Dumur, a contemporary of this affair, wrote: "The defeatist hurricane that lifted France was still blowing. Could it be supposed that when suspects were thrown into Paris at the war councils and unfortunate soldiers guilty of having given in at a moment of failure were shot behind the front lines (sic.), could one believe that the spy, caught in the act and unanimously condemned by her military judges, had a single chance to escape her punishment?"

At the end of the training, Bouchardon said to the dancer, who was anxious to go to trial, "It is better not to do it now; last month (June 1917) we went through some hard times. Strikes, mutinies in the army. The wounds are not closed and spirits are still warm. Do not be in a hurry". The thesis of the "conspiracy" carried out at the rear, a thesis that was spreading, required of course to strike hard, at the precise moment when theUnion was disintegrating, and while the French army was convalescing after the failure of the Nivelle offensive and the crisis of the mutinies. It is no coincidence that, one month after the execution of Mata Hari, Clemenceau came to power on a programme that had gone to extremes. This painful and cruel backdrop, born after three years of war, is very real, but it does not in any way explain the fate of the dancer, as some historians have written. Certainly, more than ever at the end of 1917, it was important for the government to prove that the rear supported the front, and that the capital was not just a "hideout", as the "Poilus" tended to believe.

By 1917, Mata Hari was well known to most people. She was, moreover, the only spy for whom a passionate public - because of her gallant and artistic notoriety - wondered whether she had deserved death, or whether the council of war had not been mistaken in deciding her fate too quickly... Some historians (always the same ones) claimed that they had wanted to - with the help of the newspapers - make the dancer a scapegoat whose immolation, demanded and awaited by the French, could establish the reputation of the services of C.E. For the latter, it was necessary to strike opinion and show their effectiveness. With Mata Hari, Ladoux had everything to gain: she was the "ripe fruit" that any propaganda service would have dreamed of seeing fall. However, this thesis is inaccurate, since the press was only informed of Mata Hari's arrest at the end of the investigation into her trial. It was only on 24 June 1917 that Le Petit Parisien published an article on the trial in progress, and then it was the turn of other newspapers. One journalist, who did not believe in the guilt of the woman he portrayed as "a half-brained half-mondaine" wrote: "Mata Hari, a spy! This, really, does not seem possible".

A note was sent on 24 July to warn the press that the trial of the case would be held behind closed doors, in accordance with article 113, paragraphs 3 and 4, of the Code of Military Justice: "The proceedings shall be public on pain of being declared null and void; nevertheless, if such publicity appears to be dangerous to public order and morals, counsel orders that the proceedings shall be held in camera. In all cases, the judgement shall be pronounced in public; counsel may prohibit the reporting of the case; such prohibition shall not apply to the judgement". Thus, if there had really been a desire to make the Mata Hari case a media manipulation, the newspapers would have been warned well in advance so that the capture of the spy would be used to make the case for C.E.'s services. The secret services' policy on the communication of information to the press was not subject to these considerations; it had not changed since 1916 and will not be subject to any exception, even for Mata Hari... A note, transmitted from the Commission to the Council of Ministers in December 1999, states that the secret services' policy on the communication of information to the press was not subject to these considerations.A note, transmitted from 1916, stigmatized the danger of allowing the reasons for the death sentences of spies to be published, and regretted that the warnings issued to the "General Directorate for Relations with the Press" on this subject were ineffective. Another note of June 1916 recalled: "In order not to hinder the investigation of cases, newspapers should keep silent about the arrest of persons suspected of espionage and war smuggling. But, unless the military justice system gives a reasoned opinion to the contrary, sentences may be allowed to be published".

The Mata Hari affair was even too extensive for the taste of the secret services: on 29 July 1917, they sent this note to the Minister's office concerning its treatment by the newspapers: "The publicity given to the details of this affair is detrimental to the execution of the service of C.E.". On 6 August 1917, while the dancer had appealed to the Supreme Court, the War Department's "Press Section" responded to the counter-espionage complaints: "It is difficult, in practice, to get the newspapers, even with advance notice, to remain completely silent on matters of espionage and counter-espionage, especially when a conviction has been handed down, as was the case with the Zelle woman, known as Mata Hari". Yet the censors were particularly attentive: one of them wrote: "Mata Hari: the sound of her execution is heard periodically; we've heard it more than ten times". Thus ? and contrary to what some people claim ? the circumstances in which the dancer was confused provoked an excess of discretion. This is understandable: during the trial, the possibility for the French to decipher the secret enemy telegrams was a vital piece of information; consequently, it had to be kept absolutely secret. The French? who were unaware of the willingness of the German S.R. to sacrifice the dancer? Nor did they know that her employers were counting on the fact that their figure had been pierced... Let us recall that it was not until the end of April 1917 that Ladoux transmitted to Bouchardon the text of the 14 telegrams compromising Mata Hari, and again he did so because, for lack of evidence, she could be released. At the trial, Paul Painlevé, Minister of War, took the trouble to point out the urgent need to maintain this hidden advantage. On May 3, Ladoux once again explained to Bouchardon the importance of keeping silent on this point, since the breakthrough of the code had already made it possible to arrest spies and should make it possible to arrest others. At the same time, maximum discretion had to be maintained about those who, on a daily basis, in France and abroad, worked in counter-espionage investigations, whether they were police or military. On October 15, 1917, the censorship services were finally ordered to ban all misappropriated photographs that might be taken during the execution of the dancer. It should be remembered that there was no photographer on the scene, and that the photographs circulating here and there are only post-war reconstructions.

  • Third and final conclusion: the one that literature and cinema have tried to present as "the most representative spy of the 20th century".was above all an adventurer and a prostitute... In the eyes of those who judged her, Mata Hari was "a girl of little virtue"...Her visits to Paris in 1915-1916 had again been an opportunity for her to prostitute herself in establishments in the Étoile district to make up for the always difficult ends of the month, as testified by the doctor of the Prefecture of Police who met her in these circumstances. Let us recall that Marguerite Zelle was a woman who had made libertine life a way of life. Wherever she went, this provocative woman was preceded by her sulphurous reputation... And besides, in 1917, her charm came less from her person than from the idea that people had of her (and the perfume of scandal that surrounded her). For the jury that convicted her, she was the ideal spy, using her charms to betray better. She was a perfect match for all the stereotypes on the subject... Let us recall that among the officers who formed the 3rd council of war, there was a guard who was a member of the 3rd council of war.publican guard and a gendarme, representatives of a corps one of whose missions was precisely "the repression of prostitution", in particular as a "measure to combat espionage".

Moreover, for a population that had been suffering and deprived since 1914, Mata Hari represented easy life. She also embodied Germany's attempt at moral ruin against the French soul... A foreigner, she came (moreover) from Holland, a neutral country that was hated by the French because it secretly supplied Germany, thus thwarting its economic blockade and weakening. No feeling of pity could therefore intervene in its favour. Even before his judges, Mata Hari did not keep a low profile. She was proud, with a very exaggerated idea of herself. Worse: she had an immoderate desire to shine in society for what she was, i.e. a courtesan. Now, this behaviour - which was contrary to the bourgeois morality of her time? The doctor of the Paris Police Headquarters, who was present at the execution, heard this sentence just after the shooting: "She was a rascal, we did well to get rid of her." And he wrote in his memory: "It can be said that the end of the dancer did not take any new victims from the world, but at least it put an end to the execrable career of this devious and cruel woman. As Bouchardon said, as Mata Hari's lifeless body was removed from the firing post, "Even innocent, she had to disappear. In 1953, however, the ex-captain, anxious to justify his past acts, wrote in his Souvenirs: "Feline, supple and artificial, used to playing with everything and everyone without scruples, without pity, always ready to devour fortunes? When her lovers were ruined, she burned her brains ? she was ?the born spy? and she made it clear". In 1947, the public prosecutor Mornet declared to a journalist: "In what was reproached to Mata Hari, there was not enough to whip a cat". He added: "She was by no means this demonic character that some people have said, a sort of genius of espionage and evil, nor was she the innocent person wrongly condemned for I do not know what reasons of State. A courtesan, a simple courtesan, like so many others, but bitter for gain!".

Mata Hari, a subtle mixture of genres, it seems, to the point where, in the end, it is no longer easy to remember, in the collective unconscious, the real reason for her death sentence: espionage or depravity?

Lieutenant-Colonel, doctor in history, Olivier LAHAIE was for several years head of the history and geography department at Saint-Cyr after a stint in the army's Historical Service. He is currently serving at the Centre d'études stratégiques de l'armée de Terre; he is also an associate researcher at the Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan School Research Centre.

1] British counter-espionage

[2] Military counter-espionage

3] Political Director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Title : Mata Hari, or the fatal banter...
Author (s) : Lieutenant-colonel Olivier LAHAIE