It’s January 1916, on a foggy winter’s night in Paris.
An automobile idles beneath the flickering glow of a street lamp. Seated behind the wheel is a stocky, bulldog-faced man – his unblinking eyes fixed on the Grand Hotel across the square. Georges Ladoux is the chief of the French military’s counter-intelligence bureau – the man responsible for keeping France safe from foreign espionage.
It's been a long night but Georges is keeping his eyes peeled watching for the moment when a concierge opens the hotel doors. This is what Georges has been waiting for, he watches as a young man and an older woman emerge into the square. The man is wearing a Russian soldier’s uniform. The woman is dressed to the nines in a black fur coat and high heels. Georges watches as the couple link arms and stroll off down the rain-drenched boulevard.
Georges puts his car in drive… and follows. He trails the couple as they wend their way toward Montmartre – the beating heart of bohemian Paris. Georges' handlebar mustache twitches with disapproval as the couple ducks inside a seedy cabaret club.
Georges stops the engine and climbs out of the car.
He walks quickly across the wet cobblestones, his hat pulled low. Normally, Georges wouldn’t be caught dead in an area like Montmartre, with its absinthe-sipping bohemians and prowling demi-monde. Feeling surrounded by vice, Georges pushes open the door of the cabaret club… and steps inside.
On stage, dancers perform high kicks, flashing their undergarments to an audience of whooping, whistling soldiers. Through the haze of cigarette smoke, Georges spots the man in the Russian soldier’s uniform. He’s sitting at a table by himself. His female companion has vanished. But then, the red velvet curtains fall across the stage…
A hush settles over the audience as the bow-tied emcee appears. He introduces the evening’s next act: a surprise performance from Europe’s most famous exotic dancer, a woman whose dazzling beauty has delighted audiences for years. The emcee flashes a smile: “mesdames et messieurs, I present to you… Mata Hari.”
The curtains rise. And Georges cranes his neck.
Sitting on stage, scantily clad in a translucent silk gown, is the Russian soldier’s companion – and the woman Georges has been following for weeks. Mata Hari is a renowned dancer and world-famous beauty.
But… Georges believes she is something else as well. He believes Mata Hari is a German spy, selling French military secrets. And Georges will stop at nothing until this duplicitous temptress has been brought to justice.
In Paris, Mata Hari was the toast of what’s known as La Belle Époque or the Beautiful Era; the term given to the period of French and European history just before World War I. Mata Hari was a dancer whose talent and charisma led her onto the stages of Europe’s most prestigious concert halls – and into the beds of many powerful statesmen and generals. But when she fell under suspicion of spying for Germany in World War I, Mata Hari’s glamorous life unraveled. She found herself rejected by the society that once welcomed her, betrayed by the men who once loved her, and ultimately sentenced to death for espionage on July 25th, 1917.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is July 25th, 1917: Mata Hari is Sentenced to Death.
Act One: Before the Dawn
It’s July 5th, 1895 in Holland; 22 years before Mata Hari is sentenced to execution.
An eighteen-year-old girl stands on the steps of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon and the boulevards bustle with pedestrians. The girl scans the sea of bobbing parasols, anxiously fretting with a newspaper clutched in her hands. It is opened to the “lonely hearts” section, where a marriage advertisement is circled with black ink. It reads: “Captain Rudolf MacLeod, 39 years of age, seeks a woman of good standing for marriage.”
A girl's anxiety doesn't abate as a bald-headed man with a drooping walrus mustache climbs the steps of the museum. Girl smiles modestly as the man walks up to her – close enough for her to smell his pungent body odor. He looks her up and down. “Miss Zelle?” he asks. “Miss Margaretha Zelle?” Margaretha nods. The man curls his lip into a tight smile and says: “I received your photograph. My name is Captain Rudolf MacLeod.”
Margaretha feels a pang of disappointment. Rudolf is hardly the dashing soldier she had envisioned when she replied to the personal advertisement. But still, Rudolf is an officer in the colonial army, stationed in Java in the Dutch East Indies. Marriage offers Margaretha a chance to escape her miserable life in the Netherlands, where she lives alone with her uncle. Margaretha’s mother died when she was young, and her father abandoned her shortly thereafter. For Margaretha, marriage provides an opportunity to reinvent herself.
So six days after meeting, Margaretha and Rudolf are wed.
Soon, the couple boards a steamship bound for Malang – a town in eastern Java. But married life will not turn out the way Margaretha hoped. Rudolf is a drunken bully, who savagely beats her. He's unfaithful and eventually infects Margaretha with syphilis. As a result of her unhappy home life, Margaretha spends more and more time away from the house, wandering the strange, foreign streets of Malang.
During one such excursion, Margaretha makes a momentous discovery.
On a cool, quiet night as the leaves of the coconut palms sag with fresh rain. Margaretha turns a corner and skirts around the edge of town. Eventually, and quite by chance, she finds herself outside a music hall. Curious, she peers inside. A smattering of colonial officers sit in attendance watching three women dance on stage dressed in exotic silk costumes and decorative headdresses. They’re moving their bodies sensuously – twirling and undulating – as if made of water and Margaretha is transfixed.
After the performance, Margaretha approaches the dancers and introduces herself. It turns out the women belong to a traditional Indonesian dance company, and they invite Margaretha to attend their next class.
Over the next two years, Margaretha throws herself into Indonesian culture. With her jet-black hair and olive skin, she could almost be one of the locals. Her fellow dancers give Margaretha a stage name: Mata Hari – which means “eye of the dawn” in Malay, the regional language. Dancing provides Margaretha with a momentary reprieve from Rudolf, whose drunken violence has been getting worse. When she is on stage, Margaretha becomes Mata Hari. She can forget about her troubled home life. She can pretend, fleetingly, to be a different person entirely.
But in 1899, tragedy strikes.
Margaretha’s two-year-old son, Norman, dies from congenital syphilis. Margaretha is inconsolable. She and Rudolf have another child – a daughter. And when she is also diagnosed with syphilis, Margaretha files for divorce. Rudolf is discharged from the colonial army under a cloud of disgrace, and the family sails back to the Netherlands.
But during the ensuing custody battle for her daughter, Margaretha loses. Without a source of income or a stable home, the judge rules against her. And so, having lost everything, Margaretha boards a train for Paris – the city of second chances – clutching nothing but a suitcase and a passport, ready to reinvent herself all over again.
It’s one year later in a crowded, dimly lit Parisian salon, a theatrical agent named Gabrielle Astruc sits in the audience. Gabrielle has come to watch a dancer whose risqué performances have been causing a stir throughout the city. One journalist wrote that she was “so feline, so majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembled in a thousand rhythms.”
So Gabrielle is excited as the gas lights dim and the curtain lifts to reveal a woman standing on stage. Her jet-black hair is bundled beneath an elaborate headpiece encrusted with gemstones and gold. Her olive-skinned body is suggestively draped in a costume of diaphanous silk. Then the woman begins to dance, seductively shedding layers of clothing until she’s wearing nothing but a gold-plated brassier, decorated with beads and pearls. Gabrielle gives her a standing ovation; as soon as the performance ends, he approaches Mata Hari and offers to represent her.
When she arrived in Paris last year, Margaretha was penniless and alone. Lacking options, she started dancing under the stage-name Mata Hari, claiming to be a Javanese princess. Soon, with the help of her new agent, Gabrielle, Mata Hari becomes the toast of Paris. She embarks on a grand tour of Europe, appearing on stages in Vienna, Milan, Monte Carlo, and Berlin. And as her celebrity grows, so does her list of suitors. Mata Hari conducts affairs with dozens of politicians, generals, and businessmen. They buy her fine clothes and jewelry and put her up in ritzy apartments. They never ask where she came from, or who she really is – and Margaretha doesn’t tell them.
But as she ages, Mata Hari’s dancing career fades. She is forced to work as a courtesan, making her living off the allowance of her wealthy lovers. However, a dark shadow is looming on Europe’s horizon. In 1914, World War I will break out, extinguishing the glitz and glamor of the Beautiful Era in Paris, replacing it with a new age of suspicion and subterfuge. Mata Hari will return to Holland, moving into a grand house paid for by one of her many lovers. But soon, Mata Hari’s powers of seduction will be enlisted for another, darker purpose- espionage.
Act Two: Agent H-21
It’s the fall of 1915, in the Hague – a city in Holland.
Margaretha Zelle – better known by her stage name, Mata Hari – hears a knock at her door. She opens it to reveal a middle-aged man in a black suit. The man introduces himself as Karl Kroemer, a German diplomat based in Amsterdam. Karl seems starstruck, but he composes himself sufficiently to offer Mata Hari 20,000 francs to spy on France for Germany.
Karl is well acquainted with Mata Hari’s frequent and well-publicized liaisons with French statesmen. He and his handlers in the German government believe she can be a useful asset. Mata Hari has no allegiance to Germany. But she does need the money. So she accepts the cash. But has no intention on spying for anybody.
A few months later, Mata Hari returns to Paris but finds it a city scarred by war. The wide boulevards are wrecked by bomb craters, and temporary hospitals have been set up for wounded soldiers. Mata Hari takes up residence in the Grand Hotel – a luxurious accommodation in the center of the city. And during her time there, something unlikely and unprecedented happens to the 40-year-old Mata Hari… she falls in love.
Captain Vladimir Masloff is a 21-year-old Russian officer on leave from the Front. Quiet by accident he meets Mata Hari and they begin an unlikely whirlwind romance. When Vladimir is wounded in combat during the summer of 1916, Mata Hari desperately wants to visit him in hospital. But Vladimir is recuperating behind the front line, and civilians aren’t allowed there – not without special clearance.
So Mata Hari contacts a former lover who works for the French War Department and asks him for help obtaining clearance. He agrees to arrange a meeting between Mata Hari and his boss: the head of the French counter-intelligence bureau, Georges Ladoux.
Several days later, Georges is sitting behind his desk at the bureau, pensively drawing on his pipe when Georges' door opens.
His secretary announces the arrival of Madame Zelle, otherwise known as Mata Hari. Georges tells his secretary to send her in.
A few months back, Georges received a tip-off from British intelligence agents in Holland that Mata Hari had been spotted associating with German diplomats in The Hague. His suspicions piqued, Georges started following Mata Hari, going through her mail and eavesdropping on her telephone calls. Georges would not find any evidence suggesting Mata Hari was a spy. But what he did discover was a woman of lax morals, whose extravagant lifestyle profoundly offended Georges' sense of propriety and decency.
Georges stands and walks to the window. He surveys the bomb-ravaged city over the top of his glasses. The war is not going well for France. On the front line, the death toll is steadily rising, while the cities are being blitzed day and night by German zeppelin attacks. Among the civilians, morale is at rock bottom. The people need a boost… and the arrest of a high-profile spy might provide it.
When Mata Hari steps inside Georges' office, she tells him all about her lover Vladimir and her request for special clearance to visit him in the hospital. After listening sympathetically for a few moments, Georges cuts her off. He says he will approve her request on one condition: she must use her powers of seduction to elicit military secrets from German officials. She is to travel to Spain and then to await further instruction. After a brief hesitation, Mata Hari agrees. Georges settles back in his chair, satisfied. If he can’t prove Mata Hari is a German agent… then he’ll make her a spy for the French.
A few months later, in December 1916, Mata Hari stands discreetly outside the German Embassy in Madrid.
The embassy door opens, and a young blonde-haired diplomat emerges. Mata Hari watches from beneath her wide-brimmed hat as the diplomat passes through the front gates, then turns left down the street. Mata Hari checks that nobody’s looking, then she follows the diplomat. When he turns into a park, Mata Hari calls out: “Arnold?” The diplomat turns. His squirrelly face breaks into a genuine smile, as he exclaims: “Margaretha!”
Major Arnold Kalle is the German military attaché in Madrid. Over the last few weeks, Mata Hari has been slowly seducing him, trying to extract information to send back to Georges in France. That evening, the pair goes out drinking and dancing. And after a few cocktails, Mata Hari begins asking Arnold about Germany’s military plans, passing it off as mere flirtatious curiosity. Arnold, drunk on lust and brandy, reveals something noteworthy: Germany is planning an upcoming shipment of troops to Morocco via submarine. Mata Hari believes she has landed a sensational scoop. She sends a telegram back to Georges, detailing the Germans’ plans.
But the intelligence is completely false. Unbeknownst to Mata Hari, Arnold has grown suspicious of her relentless questioning, and he’s been feeding her bogus information.
The Germans often deploy disinformation. They are well aware that their radio messages are being intercepted by a listening station atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris. So they intentionally transmit false intelligence, hoping the French will intercept it. One such message contains details of a French spy based in Madrid, a local courtesan, code-named H-21.
When Georges hears this, he is vindicated in his previous suspicion. To him, this is indisputable proof that Mata Hari is a double agent, a spy whose loyalty lies with Germany.
On February 14th, after Mata Hari returns to Paris, her hotel room door will be kicked down by a squadron of policemen, they will arrest her on charges of espionage. And Mata Hari will be thrown into a dingy, rat-infested cell, where she will be forced to await a trial for a crime she did not commit.
Act Three: Trial & Execution
It’s July 25th, 1917 in Paris.
Mata Hari sits in the dock of a crowded courtroom. She is dressed for a funeral – in a long black dress, a black hat, and a veil drawn across her face. She can feel the eyes of the jurors boring into her, their scorn radiating off them like a powerful heat.
A stiff prosecutor stands before the room, his hands clasped behind his back, his nose wrinkled, as if effunded by some noisome smell. Captain Pierre Bouchardon is Mata Hari’s principal interrogator. Today, before a panel of seven military judges, he accuses Mata Hari of selling French military secrets to Germany. He declares to the jurors’ bench that Mata Hari is a common harlot, who uses her wily seductive powers to lure French officers into her bed, then tricks them into revealing confidential intelligence. He spits the accusations out as if the words themselves taste bitter.
Then the Captain accuses Mata Hari of inventing a persona to willfully deceive the good men of France. He declares that she is not a Javanese princess, as she claims, but rather she is Margaretha Zelle – the unwanted daughter of a Dutch hatmaker. One of the judges turns to Mata Hari, his eyes wide with disdain, he bellows: “How do you respond?”
Mata Hari is silent for a moment. Then she lifts her head and fixes the Judge with a resolute stare, “A harlot?" she asks, "I’ll admit it. But a traitress? Never!” The courtroom erupts into howls of derision. The Judge calls for order. And when silence has resumed, the Judge asks the jury for their verdicts. The decision is unanimous: Mata Hari is to be executed by firing squad.
Three months later, on a drizzly October morning, a convoy of rattling automobiles carries Mata Hari from her prison cell to a muddy field outside Paris. There, a regiment of soldiers awaits in the pre-dawn mist. The doors of a truck swing open and Mata Hari steps out, wearing a simple gray dress and matching hat.
A grim-faced sergeant major goes to lead Mata Hari to a wooden stake. But Mata Hari flinches away from his touch. Alone, she strides forward. The sergeant major offers her a blindfold, but Mata Hari refuses. She intends to confront death the way she confronted life – head-on, and without fear. Before giving the order to shoot, the sergeant-major growls under his breath: “This lady knows how to die.”
Mata Hari will go down in history as the archetypal femme fatale, the glamorous lady spy whose life will inspire countless books and movies. But while the legend of Mata Hari often depicts her as a cunning seductress, the truth is not so simple. Today, historians agree that Mata Hari was more of a victim than a victimizer, a naïve individual, who found herself embroiled in a tangled web of deceit and espionage, that ultimately led to her being sentenced to death, on July 25th, 1917.
Next onHistory Daily.July 26th, 1990. Disability rights activists achieve a major victory for equality when President George H. W. Bush signs into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.