Mata Hari: Undercover spy or double agent?

Mata Hari: Undercover spy or double agent?

This week we learn the tragic end to Mata Hari’s story. After such a glamorous life in Paris, Mata is dragged into the dark and unforgiving world of espionage. While in Paris, she developed an act so successful it helped shaped the Parisian nightlife it has since become famous for, and socialised with the rich and famous.

Her lifestyle and association with the social elite saw her travel all around Europe. Unfortunately, this is also what drew the calculating eyes of France’s military intelligence agency.

The name’s Hari. Mata Hari

Mata Hari agreed to spy for France in 1916, during the First World War after the Deuxième Bureau, France’s military intelligence agency, offered to facilitate her visit to the hospital where her wounded lover was being treated in exchange for her services. As Mata was a citizen of the Netherlands, which was neutral during the war, she would normally be unable to visit the Western Front where the hospital was located.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata one million francs to find information on the Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, the eldest son of Emperor Wilhelm II. Mata had performed for the Crown Prince several times before the war, and the French sent Mata to seduce him. However, unbeknownst to the French, the Crown Prince lived a playboy lifestyle and had his own political ambitions rather than having anything to do with Germany’s war efforts, despite being stationed on the Western Front.

Double agent?

So, in November 1916 she set out on a steamer bound for Spain to meet a German military attaché in Madrid. The steamer stopped at Falmouth in England, where she was arrested and interrogated. She admitted to working for the Bureau and was consequently allowed to continue her journey. On arriving in Madrid, she met with Major Arnold Kelle, the military attaché, and asked him to set up a meeting with the Crown Prince.

Mata also offered to share her knowledge about the French in exchange for money, although it is unclear whether this was to try and prove herself loyal to the Germans or simply for the money. Unfortunately for Mata, in January 1917, the Deuxième Bureau intercepted coded messages containing information on the French from Kelle to the German High Command. The messages spoke of a spy codenamed “H-21,” which the Bureau quickly identified as Mata Hari.

As it turned out, the Chief Intelligence Officer of the German Army, General Walter Nicolai, had grown weary of Mata feeding him mere gossip and inconsequential information regarding the private lives of French politicians and army officers. He had Kelle send incriminating messages using a code that they knew had already been deciphered by the French, with the intention of them being intercepted.

Arrest and trial

Despite the incriminating messages, it was another development that directly led Mata Hari’s arrest. In December 1919, Mata Hari obtained a list of six Belgian spies - five suspected of submitting false intelligence and one suspected of being a double agent - from the French War Ministry. Two weeks after Mata arrived in Spain, the suspected double agent was executed by the Germans, seemingly proving that she had been passing information to the Germans and cementing Mata’s guilt.

Mata was arrested on February 13, 1917, in her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris. She was put on trial for spying for Germany and causing the death of at least 50.000 soldiers. Prosecutors worked relentlessly to prove her guilt, casting her as dishonest and of dubious character due to her fictitious origin story while working in Paris. Her principal liaison with the Deuxième Bureau also testified against her and even tampered with evidence to ensure a guilty verdict. Secret ink was also supposedly found in her room, which she insisted was simply makeup, which was taken as damning evidence.

Mata Hari did admit to accepting 20.000 francs from a German officer to spy on France but insisted this was to gain the trust of the German military and only passed on frivolous information. Heartbreakingly, Vadim Maslov, the man who Mata had been through so much for, refused to testify for her during her trial. He had become full of resentment after being shot down and losing his eyesight and told her that he didn’t care whether she was convicted or not.

End of the road

Despite vehemently denying the accusations, Mata Hari was found guilty. This was unsurprising considering the amount of effort that went into her prosecution. On top of that, Mata’s lawyer was not allowed to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses or even examine his own witnesses directly.

Many believe that the reason Mata was so unfairly treated was that the French government needed a scapegoat. In July 1917, a new French government came to power and committed itself to win the war. They needed a reason for why France had done so badly up until this point and Mata Hari was a perfect scapegoat, as a spy for Germany who had been leaking French information. This explains why her trial garnered so much publicity in France and her importance in the war was overstated by the French prosecutors.

Mata Hari, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, was executed via firing squad on October 15, 1917, by French soldiers. According to an eyewitness reporter she was not bound and refused a blindfold and, just before the soldiers fired their shots, she blew a kiss to them as a final act of defiance.

Next time?

So ends the story of Mata Hari. A remarkable woman who fought against everything life put in her way and maintained a sense of dignity and respect throughout, despite her difficult early life and being used as a spy and a scapegoat by higher powers during the war. An extremely resilient and resourceful woman, Mata Hari showed the world what one woman could do and achieve in the face of such extreme adversity.

I hope you enjoyed this three-part series on the life of Mata Hari. Which famous Dutch person would you like me to cover next? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Thumb: Sharaf Maksumov via

William Nehra


William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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