Mata Hari


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Born in 1876 in the Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle married an affluent Dutch Colonial Army captain at the age of 18. In 1897, she moved with him to the island of Java, where they had two children. Her husband was an abusive and resentful alcoholic. To distract herself from the unhappiness of her marriage, Zelle buried herself in the study of Indonesian culture and traditions, including dance. The marriage slowly deteriorated, and after returning to the Netherlands, the couple separated in 1902. Zelle moved to Paris, where she found work as a circus equestrian, artist’s model and exotic dancer. She changed her name to Mata Hari shortly after.

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She delighted audiences around Europe with her performances and provocative photo shoots, and became something of a courtesan, carrying on affairs with numerous men of high social distinction, including politicians and military officers of several countries, among them top French diplomat Jules Cambon and the Crown Prince of Germany.  Her career began to decline as she aged, but she continued to crisscross the continent to visit patrons and paramours — which made her the subject of scrutiny during World War I.

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She was in Germany at the outbreak of WWI, and her request to travel to enemy Paris resulted in the seizure of her jewelry, clothes and money by German authorities. She returned to her neutral home of Holland, where an old lover set her up in one of his houses. Rather than wait out the war there, she grew restless and traveled through England to Paris to visit old friends. British intelligence noticed her, and suspected she was a German spy.

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In Paris, meanwhile, Mata Hari fell in love with a young Russian captain who had been left partially blind serving in the French army. While attempting to visit him in the hospital near the front, she was met by a French counterintelligence officer who had heard from the British about her suspected spying. He asked her to use her contacts to spy for France. She agreed to do it for the money to make a life with her new love.

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Dispatched on a mission to sweet-talk her way up the German chain of command, she was detained and interrogated while passing back through England, and disavowed by her French handler. She ended up stranded in Madrid, where she decided to seduce a German attache for intel. The German, who recognized her for an amateur spy, fed her a mix of lies and old truths, while she fed him French gossip. On Dec. 13, 1916, the French intercepted a coded message from the attache to Berlin relaying the gossip from the spy codenamed “H21.”

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Mata Hari’s French handler feared this codename meant that she had been a German agent all along — not realizing that the Germans knew they were using a broken cypher, and meant for the French to read the message. Meanwhile, heavy casualties had left Allied morale at a dangerous low, and people were looking for scapegoats. Mata Hari returned to Paris expecting payment for her services, but could not reach her handler. On Feb. 13, 1917, she was arrested by French authorities on charges of espionage.

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Feb. 13, 1917 Mata Hari is photographed after her arrest in Paris.

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Her tendency to exaggerate her past, which had served her well on the dance stages of Paris, hurt her during interrogation. She could not keep her story straight, and eventually revealed that she had once accepted money from German intelligence to spy, but had had no intention of following through — she had viewed it as payback for what they had seized at the start of the war. The closed trial, for which her defense attorney was a former lover, was a foregone conclusion. The judges found her guilty on all counts after 40 minutes of deliberation.

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On the morning of Oct. 15, 1917, the one-time “toast of Paris” was driven to Vincennes, where she was marched to a stake driven into a large field, before which stood a firing squad. She walked to the stake on her own and refused a blindfold. The soldiers raised their rifles, and she blew them a kiss.

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Oct. 15, 1917 The bell which tolled on the evening of Mata Hari's execution by firing squad.

Summary: bio

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