Courtesan, spy, “femme fatale”; who was actually Mata Hari?

With her dances and her beauty, she carved out a life for herself as an elite courtesan, in order to survive.

On October 15, 1917, in the midst of World War I , Margaretha Geertruida Zelle , aged 41 , was shot in Vincennes -Valle del Marne department- near Paris as a spy . A woman who has gone down in history as a femme fatale, but who, in reality, was not so much. Also as a symbol of espionage and stories around this word that are more in the imagination of the authors, than reality. We are referring to the mythical Mata Hari, which in Malay means “eye of the day”. Dancer, courtesan and spy. Now, really, who was Mata Hari?

He was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, on August 7, 1876. Although many consider that because he was a spy and lived adventures, his life was very happy, the reality is quite the opposite. Her husband abused her. To escape from this tormented life, she changed her personality and became a princess of Java. With her dances and her beauty, she carved out a life for herself as an elite courtesan, in order to survive. She entered the world of espionage out of necessity, to keep eating. The end was the culmination of a life with many pleasures, but empty of happiness.

Mata Hari (1905)

Mata Hari (1905)

She married her husband for an advertisement in the press. She read that Rudolf MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch East Indies Army, 38, was looking for a wife for her. They arranged an interview. He was 20 years older than her. They got engaged and, after getting married, they moved to live in Java. If at first it seemed that everything would be idyllic, things changed after a few months. Rudolf became an alcoholic. During his drunken sprees he mistreated Margaretha. Due to her bad character , they suffered an attempted poisoning as a result, Norman, her 2-year-old son, died. To recover from her addiction they returned to Europe in 1902.

Things did not improve and they parted ways . Her only daughter, Jeanne, was forced to live with her father. Margaretha, alone, had to scramble to survive. It is at this time that she transforms into Mata Hari. She was a princess of Java. The ignorance that Europe had of that country, allowed her character to succeed. To win the favor of the public, she invented that she was a princess initiated in the sacred dances of Hinduism. Since nobody knew if the one they saw was real or not, the acceptance was positive.


Mata Hari 

In Paris she began to work in various shows. She also performed at private parties. While she danced she took off the clothes -or few clothes- that she was wearing, until she was practically naked. She only kept a jeweled breastplate that covered her breasts. Thanks to the character of Mata Hari she became the mistress of rich and powerful characters. It was a novelty in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Now, that porcelain doll had all the numbers to end up breaking. In the city of lights, everything could be copied. These men did not care about the truth of the story. That is why imitators began to emerge, younger, who began to snatch her princely throne,being more daring than her. To survive she took jobs as an erotic model.

And then World War I came. Things began to change in that old Europe. Not only empires would disappear, but also taste and fashion. Pleasure gave way to information, a key piece in any armed conflict. Mata Hari could be the right person to get the information that many wanted. It would be good for her because he would earn money that was scarce and needed.

Double spy

At first it was the Germans who contacted her for information. Then the French. Before long she became a double spy. And this is where the romantic story of Mata Hari ends. She was never a crucial spy who passed secrets to one side or another that could tip the scales of war. Her power was very limited. The information she passed on was bedroom gossip and racy stories about the intimate lives of various officers. She never passed on information of strategic or vital value that could influence the course of World War I.

Tried and executed

She was arrested on February 13, 1917. During interrogations, she declared that she had always been faithful to France. “A whore? Yes, but a traitor, never! At the trial it became clear that she was being judged an innocent person. That many of the accusations were unfounded. However, France needed to shift responsibility for its military failures to someone, and that was Mata Hari. No one defended her. They let her break the china doll without lifting a finger. She was sentenced to death because, because of her, 50,000 soldiers had died. The soldiers died, but not because of Mata Hari.

In the early hours of October 15, 1917, at the Chateau de Vincennes , outside Paris, Mata Hari was placed in front of a post . In front of her a firing squad made up of 12 men. She did not allow them to blindfold her. The download occurred. She slow, inert, she settled on her knees, with her head always high, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For a split second she seemed to stagger there, on her knees, looking directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell back, bending at her waist, her legs folded under her. A non-commissioned officer approached her and gave her the coup de grâce in the head.

Mata Hari ni Margaretha Zelle has a grave in which to place a flower. No one ever claimed her body. This was used in dissection classes at the Paris medical school. His head was embalmed, but it disappeared forever a few years after his death. As an epilogue, his own words: “I don’t know if I will be remembered in the future, but if so, let no one see me as a victim but as someone who never stopped fighting bravely and paid the price he had to pay”.

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