The Mata Hari Myth

Dr. Thomas Boghardt, Historian

The world of intelligence is populated by intriguing, amazing, and occasionally outright bizarre characters. One of my favorites remains Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, aka Mata Hari. She fascinates me not so much because of her espionage career, but because her image has so powerfully shaped our perception of women in espionage.

Born in 1876 in the Netherlands, Margaretha Zelle spent several years in Dutch Indonesia as the wife of a Dutch colonial officer. After falling out with her husband, she returned to Europe, adopted the stage name “Mata Hari,” and launched a sensational career as an exotic dancer. Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, she captivated her audience (mostly men) virtually overnight.

During World War I, Mata Hari apparently got involved with German intelligence, using her female wiles to worm secrets out of high ranking Allied military officers. While the details of her brief espionage career remain murky, in 1917 French counter-intelligence intercepted an enemy telegram implicating her as a German spy. The French arrested, court-martialed, and executed her by firing squad in 1917.

Mata Hari had long been a master of deception. For example, she successfully spread the notion that she was a Javanese princess, performing an ancient sacred dance of her homeland. In reality, she was plain Dutch, but her claim conferred an aura of authenticity on her autodidactic dance performances. As the war ended, the myth created by herself exploded. Rumors purported that she had refused to be blindfolded and blown a kiss to her executioners. More fiction than fact, the 1931 movie Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo, fully turned her into an icon.

Today, female spies are often referred to as “Mata Haris.” In reality, such allusions usually miss the point—the real Mata Hari was not much of a spy, and of course not every female (or male) spy uses seduction to gather intelligence. But I can’t help suspect that Mata Hari herself would be delighted to have become the symbol of the female spy as seductress. Despite her premature death, she may have the final laugh after all. 

Nothing is what it seems

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