Cabaret dancer and spy during the First World War, Mata Hari is the ideal character for a spy novel. Behind this myth, stemming from the exoticism of her tinsel as a dancer and the mystery of her activity as a spy, hides a simple seductress who was far from predestined for espionage. For the majority of historians, she would have been only an amateur, and her action negligible.
Mata Hari: an exotic dancer
Born in August 1876 in Holland, Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, had to face the bankruptcy of her father during her youth. Offering her heart to a young Dutch officer, she left for the island of Java, then a Dutch colony. It is here that she takes the name of Mata Hari, meaning in the local language, the "sun", or more metaphorically "the eye of the day", and is initiated in oriental dance Tired quickly by Javanese life and traumatized by the death of her son, she decides to return to the Old Continent, where she separates from her husband.
A new adventure awaits her in Paris, where she quickly discovered her talent as a dancer, and in addition created a character for herself by inventing Hindu origins. As early as 1905, she enjoyed some success, and, using her devastating charm, accumulated male conquests. However, little by little, the public turned away from his shows, preferring the Russian ballets which spread in the French capital.
Agent H21: a spy in the service of Germany
August 1914: war breaks out. Mata Hari was then in Berlin, in a very delicate financial situation. She returns to the Netherlands, a country not involved in the conflict. A German intelligence officer comes to meet him, offering him to become, after a little training, a spy on behalf of Germany. Deprived, she can only accept this mission which offers her the possibility of infiltrating the political and military world. Mata Hari, whose code name is Agent H21, was first sent to Paris in 1916, where she multiplied her conquests - especially among the officers with whom she said she was fascinated - and even fell in love with a young man. Russian officer, Vadim Masloff. His travels alongside this young Vadim Masloff lead him to meet Captain Ladoux, leader of 5th Office of the General Staff, in other words counter-espionage, which had already spotted her espionage activities and wanted to make her a double agent: Mata Hari accepts.
" Who graps all, looses "
Mata Hari's mission is to operate in neutral countries: she therefore leaves for Holland and Spain, two theaters of struggle between the German intelligence services and the French secret services. In Madrid, she quickly manages to meet and seduce the German military attaché, Major Kalle. After the spy leaves, Major Kalle sends a telegram to Berlin, mentioning very explicitly the information provided by Agent H21. This telegram was, like many others during the conflict, intercepted by the French from the Eiffel Tower. Did Major Kalle be reckless in mentioning Mata Hari so clearly or did he want to get rid of Agent H21, feeling that she was playing a double game?
On returning to France, Mata Hari is closely followed by the French counterintelligence services, who do not want to be fooled by the Dutch spy. On February 13, 1917, she was finally arrested. An investigation is entrusted to Captain Bouchardon, who collects the exhibits - including evidence of payment of money by Germany - and conducts the interrogations. This time, Mata Hari fails to seduce the officer: on the contrary, she appears helpless and can only confess. For the money, Mata Hari wanted to fool two intelligence services. She was never a real spy, providing no real information to the services that employed her.
Execution and posterity of Mata Hari
On October 15, 1917, she was finally sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad at the fortress of Vincennes. The context of the mutinies in 1917 undoubtedly weighed in the choice of its execution: it was necessary to make an example of the firmness of France in its infallible desire to overcome the enemy. The myth was formed, making Mata Hari, an attractive woman who had no influence in the Franco-German secret war, a great and vile spy in the service of Germany. The arrest of Mata Hari unleashed a veritable wave of "espionite" of which the ministers Caillaux and Malvy were the most famous victims.
Several film adaptations, biographies and video games have been made from the life of Mata Hari, helping to firmly anchor the name of this spy in the conscience. A regular heroine on large and small screens, she has been played by Greta Garbo (Mata Hari by George Fitzmaurice, 1932) and Jeanne Moreau (Mata Hari, agent H 21 by Jean-Louis Richard, 1964).
- Mata-Hari, the secret file of the War Council, by Jean-Pierre Turbergue. Italic Editions, 2001.
- Mata-Hari: its true story, by Philippe Collas. Plon, 2003.
- Mata Hari: Dreams and Lies, by Fred Kupferman. Cartridge, 2011.