Mata Hari: Femme Fatale or Scapegoat?

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Podcast Transcript

During World War I, a Dutch dancer and courtesan was recruited by the French as a spy.

However, not long after this, the French turned on her and accused her of being a double agent and spying for Germany

It was a case that rocked the allied powers and one which is still being talked about over 100 years after the events which took place.

Learn more about Mata Hari and the story which captivated the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

More people are probably familiar with the name Mata Hari than they are with the actual Mata Hari story itself.

Mata Hari was actually a stage name for a Dutch dancer by the name of Margareth Zelle MacLeod.

She was born in 1876 and was the eldest child of four. Her father was a haberdasher who dabbled in investments. She was raised reasonably well, but everything changed when her father went bankrupt in 1889. Two years later, her mother died. 

The four children were separated and sent to live with other relatives. 

Margareth studied to become a kindergarten teacher, but that fell through. She moved between relatives for a few years before answering an ad in a newspaper. 

Here I should note that Margareth was very attractive. Even in photos over 100 years old, it is very obvious that she was a beauty

The ad was placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain by the name of Rudolf MacLeod, who was 20 years her senior. He was stationed in the Dutch East Indies and was looking for a wife. 

In 1895, at the age of 18, she was married and the couple went to live on the island of Java in what is today Indonesia

The couple had two children and Captain MacLeod thought that getting married would lead to a promotion. However, that promotion never happened. 

He began to drink and became abusive as he blamed her for his lack of promotion, and also became enraged when other men flirted with her. He openly kept a concubine while in Java which eventually led Margareth to move in with another Dutch family. 

While in Indonesia she began to study the local Indonesian culture, in particular dancing. She became enamored with the culture and began signing her letters which she sent to the Netherlands as “Mata Hari”, which in Indonesian means the “sun”.

In 1899, one of their children died, and they eventually moved back to the Netherlands. The couple separated in 1902, and eventually legally divorced in 1906. 

In 1903, she moved to Paris with her daughter and initially took a job with a circus performing under the name Lady MacLeod. 

However, it was in 1904 that she began to find her success as a dancer. 

She was an early adopter of what we could call today, modern dance. She performed under the stage name Mata Hari and adopted an exotic persona. Many of her dance routines were adapted from what learned by studying the culture in Indonesia, with other Asian and Egyptian elements thrown in for good measure. 

She presented herself as a Javanese princess who had studied dance her entire life. Most people in France weren’t familiar with the Dutch East Indies, so they tended to accept the claims as fact. 

Still today, many people think that she was Javanese or Malay, at least in part. The reality was after several historians traced her genealogy, she was just Dutch. 

Her routine was very exotic for the audiences of the period. She had very feline movements and a big part of her act was shedding the numerous veils she wore until she was left wearing a jewel-studded brassiere. 

It is important to note that she wasn’t what you’d call today a stripper. She performed at ballets, private events, and other upscale venues as well as public saloons. It was more upscale and artistic than trashy.

Her act was totally unique when she began and soon became quite famous in Paris. 

During this time she also became the long-time mistress of a French millionaire industrialist named Émile Guimet.

By 1912 other imitators began to appear and she began to lose her appeal. She was getting older and other dancers with similar acts began to steal her spotlight. 

She ended up giving her last dance performance in 1915. 

By this time she had become more of a professional courtesan. She had romantic relationships with high-ranking political and military officials throughout Europe, including what is important for this episode, Germany. 

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that she was, at the end of her dance career, what we would today call a high-end escort.

When the First World War began, Margareth, aka Mata Hari, found herself in a unique position. The Netherlands declared themselves neutral, and as a Dutch citizen, she had the ability to enter both France and Germany. 

Given the nature of the Western Front, she couldn’t easily go from France to the Netherlands. She had to travel via Spain and Britain to go back and forth.

Her movement eventually attracted the attention of the French intelligence services. 

At the time the war broke out, she was in a relationship with a 23-year-old Russian pilot by the name of Vadim Maslov. He had been sent to France as part of a Russian Expeditionary Force which fought on the front lines of the Western Front. She later said that he was the one true love of her life

Maslov had been shot down and was seriously wounded. He was being treated in a hospital near the front when Margareth came to see him. 

Normally, she wouldn’t have been allowed near the front, both because she was a woman and because she was from a neutral country. However, she was contacted by a French intelligence officer by the name of Georges Ladoux. 

Ladoux offered to let her see Maslov and to provide her 1,000,000 Francs which she could use to support him, under the condition that she spied against the Germans for France. 

He had a particular plan in mind. The crown prince of Germany, Prince Wilhelm, had seen Mata Hari perform before the war. Ladoux’s plan was for Mata Hari to get close to Prince Wilhelm, seduce him, and get information about the war. 

The French believed that Wilhelm was a senior German military leader. In reality, he was rather a buffoon who spent most of his time drinking and was engaged in a plot to overthrow his father. The image of him as a great military leader was nothing more than German propaganda that the French believed. 

In November 1916, she traveled to England where she was detained and questioned, where she told the British that she was working for French intelligence. The entire transcript was preserved and it is still in the British Archives today, and it was the basis for a radio play in 1980.

Then she proceeded to Madrid where she met with a German military official by the name of Major Arnold Kalle. She inquired about arranging a meeting with the crown prince. 

Everything up until this point in the story is rather straightforward. It was the events from here that eventually made Mata Hari world famous. 

Supposedly, she agreed to share French secrets with the Germans, in exchange for money. 

What isn’t known is why she did this, or if in fact, she did this at all. 

It could be she did it out of greed. It could be this was part of her plan to get close to the Crown Prince. 

What we do know is that Major Kalle sent a radio message to German intelligence in Berlin informing them of a spy he called H-21. The transmission was sent via a code that the French had already cracked, and the description given of agent H-21 was such that it could only have been Mata Hari. 

Why did the Germans do this? Was it a legitimate communique? Or was it a German attempt to try and get the French to turn against her? Reportedly, the Germans were upset that the only information she was able to provide was social gossip about generals and politicians. 

The French, before she left for Spain, had given her the names of six French agents working out of Belgium. Five of the agents the French suspected of working for the Germans and giving them false information. The sixth was believed to be a double agent.

Soon after Mata Hari arrived in Spain, the double agent was executed, and the five agents providing fake information continued unmolested. 

French intelligence was sure that this was proof that she was working for the Germans.

On February 13, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in Paris. She was put on trial for espionage and the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers. 

Her trial began on July 24, and it is important to know the climate in France under which the trial took place. 

The first half of 1917 was not a good year for France.. They suffered from mutinies by soldiers, strikes by workers, and defeats on the battlefield. 

The French government decided to make Mata Hari the scapegoat for all of France’s problems. 

The trial was highly publicized and she was portrayed to be a femme fatale, easily manipulating men. The fact that she was not a Javanese Princess and that her background was totally fabricated was also used as evidence against her. 

The trial was a bit of a sham. Her lawyer was never allowed to question the prosecution’s witnesses, nor was he even allowed to question his own witnesses. While the results of the trial were all over the news, the trial was a military tribunal closed to the public. 

She did admit to taking money from Germans, but she claimed it was only to advance her mission of getting close to the crown prince, and she only provided gossip to the Germans. 

In the end, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. It only took the jury 45 minutes to decide. Mata Hari was convicted of espionage and was sentenced to death. 

She maintained her innocence to the very end, claiming that she supported France, her adopted home, but it was to no avail.

On October 15, 1917, she was executed by firing squad. She refused to be blindfolded or tied up. In her last act, according to some accounts, she blew her executioners a kiss. 

No one claimed her body, so it was donated to science. Supposedly her head was removed and preserved in the Paris Museum of Anatomy, but it was lost. Likewise, the rest of her body simply went missing. 

In the over 100 years since the execution of Mata Hari, the overwhelming consensus of historians seems to be that she either did not spy for the Germans or if she did, she had no information which could have been of any use. 

The German government exonerated her in 1930. 

The British intelligence service, MI5, released documents pertaining to Mata Hari in 2001 and concluded that there was no evidence of her spying for Germany.

Likewise, the French army finally released over 1,200 pages of documents pertaining to the case in 2017. Despite repeated requests, the French Government has never reopened the case. 

In the years since her execution, Mata Hari grew more famous than she ever was in life. There have been at least a dozen movies and TV shows about her or which had her as a character, which included portrayals by both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. 

There have been multiple books and stage productions about her life as well. 

With 100 years having passed since her trial and execution, and with most of the classified information about her having been now made public, it is doubtful if we will ever know the full truth about what happened. 

She almost certainly wasn’t the master spy whose espionage lead to the death of 50,000 French soldiers. However, it is also entirely possible that she wasn’t totally innocent either. 

Wherever the truth lies, the legend of Mata Hari and her incredible story was one of the most fascinating to come out of World War I, and will probably continue to be told for centuries to come. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener eBayer1000  over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Absolutely the best podcast I’ve listened to

I have finally achieved the goal of listening to every single episode including the reruns.

I discovered this podcast on TikTok and for a while couldn’t figure out how or where to listen to the episodes. Then I realized that I had to actually subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

What I love about this podcast is the breadth of information, how quickly it’s delivered, and Gary’s knowledge on all of these subjects.

I’m only saddened that now I’ll only have one episode a day to listen to…

Maybe it’s time to revisit my favorite ones.

Now I’m going to start with Gary’s travel podcast

Thanks, eBayer! First, I would like to welcome you to the ever-expanding Completionist Club. Members will now also be given a Bachelor’s of Knowledge degree from the Everything Everywhere Academy. 

As for the travel podcasts, be forewarned that it has been updated in a very long time and there probably won’t be any new episodes. Things just sort of fell apart when the pandemic hit, and now I’ve found a new podcast to keep me busy.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.