DP History IA: Was Mata Hari guilty of being a German Spy during the First World War?

Was Mata Hari guilty of being a German Spy during the First World War?


Was Mata Hari guilty of being a German Spy during the First World War?
Internal Assessment
Wordcount: 2200  

October 2019 

1   Identification and Evaluation of Sources 

In investigating the question “Was Mata Hari guilty of being a German spy during the First World War?” to evaluate the French verdict which led to her execution in 1917, two contrasting sources will be prominently considered. Firstly, Pat Shipman’s biography of Mata Hari  (real name Margaretha Zelle ) will be examined, being a modern and comprehensive account of her entire life, character and actions until/during supposedly becoming a spy. Further, the file collection KV2/1  will be considered as it represents some of the prosecution’s main arguments/pieces of evidence as a primary source. 

SOURCE A: “Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari”, by Pat Shipman (2007) 

Shipman is an established academic and author of a variety of historical investigations/biographies. Her writing is particularly extolled for its portrayal of the personalities in Zelle’s life – from her father to her executioners – vividly “[teasing] out the details with a novelist’s skill” . However, Shipman is no trained historian and sometimes romanticizes the events/people she describes, or glosses over what is not known to create a cohesive narrative (particularly in descriptions of Zelle’s childhood and infamous execution – rendered almost like fiction). Still, Shipman’s account is meticulously supported by a bibliography almost as long as the book itself, spanning opened museums/archives throughout the Netherlands, France and Britain. And although it was published in 2007 – before the files released on the centenary of Zelle’s trial – in a personal correspondence Shipman stated that this new evidence only supported the contents of the biography. Concerning purpose, Shipman’s motivation for writing came from a macabre fascination with the story of Zelle’s execution, which inspired deeper research into the famous dancer’s life and death. And although Shipman’s focus is not solely on Zelle’s possible espionage, her intention of portraying Zelle’s entire life allows for a deeper understanding of a woman whose legacy was entirely determined by the trial itself/resulting (negative) media coverage . In this vein, Shipman is heavily influenced by feminist scholars in her writing and generally operates with a modern, feminist morality (in her judgement of Zelle and the men who convicted/executed her) – not simply chronicling, but rewriting the myth of Mata Hari. 

SOURCE B: “KV2/1” The National Archives, Kew (Released January 1999) 

These classified MI5 files from 1916-1917 are a valuable primary source, revealing communications between those in charge of investigating Zelle. Included are transcripts from interrogations (crucially involving the different alibis Zelle provided during her first arrest in 1916 and admission of recruitment by Karl Kroemer and Georges Ladoux) and annotated newspaper articles covering the case as it unfolded. In this way, Zelle’s trial can be analyzed from a governmental and societal perspective. However, it is unclear what portion of these files was actually considered by the prosecution (or how many more are still unpublished), making their exact importance uncertain. Additionally, KV2/1 was released 80-years post trial without further explanation/comment or formatting for mass consumption, also rendering hand-written communiques difficult to decipher today. However, the purpose of these documents – to collate information/evidence of Zelle’s activities from 1916 onwards – is very valuable, as they represent the specific information France and Britain collected for the trial (as well as showing that Zelle was not arbitrarily framed in 1917 but had been under investigation for a while). Yet, the documents only touch in retrospect on 1914-1915 (when the French inquiry initially began), and portray mainly a British perspective, who were only the secondary force behind her sentencing. Regardless, these files are central to the work of many modern historians to be considered, and possibly the most concrete/comprehensive primary sources available.

2   Investigation 

In a time of the ‘Me Too’ movement, we increasingly re-examine the historical portrayals of female figures like Mata Hari as discrepancies in their contemporary treatment are revealed. Zelle’s case is special, because although her execution in October 1917 was celebrated at the French and British home fronts , historical opinion gradually shifted until the publication of her British dossier in 1999  resulted in calls for a retrial by 2001 from lawyers of the Dutch Zelle Foundation . The additional opening of the French dossier in 2017 has only strengthened allegations of an unjust verdict, making the need for further investigation clear. To now evaluate whether the charge that led to her execution was justified, the prosecution’s key arguments must be scrutinized. 

One main argument used by the prosecution to convict Zelle was simply her supposed character: she was a liar and she loved powerful men. Emphasis on this was even prominent in the final report Pierre Bouchardon – the investigating judge/interrogator – submitted in July 1917 . Certainly, her penchant for lying had already been shown in her relationship/marriage to Rudolph MacLeod when she falsely maintained she was an orphan for an entire year between 1894-1995 . However, Zelle’s greatest lie was far greater: from her debut in March 1905  to her career’s peak between 1907-1908 and beyond, she claimed the nudity which epitomized her ‘exotic’ performances was not promiscuous, but part of ancient oriental temple rituals which she, as a Javanese native (or even ‘Princess’ ) learned from childhood. Of course, Zelle was Dutch and only witnessed ‘oriental’ culture after joining MacLeod at his military post in the East Indies between 1897-1902 . Yet so convincing was this lie that, until her death, newspapers/memoirs of her lovers referred to her with varying levels of race-coded descriptions, identifying her as Creole , Japanese , and many other races/nationalities. This deceitfulness is emphasized especially in Sam Waagenaar’s biography , substantiated by interviews with Zelle’s acquaintances about the difference between her reality and projections. This obvious talent for lying in her personal and professional life was, crucially, instrumental in judging whether she was capable of espionage. The prosecution argued that especially her affairs with exclusively powerful military men wherein she gave inconsistent accounts of her background made her dubious – why would she lie so frequently if not to hide clandestine activity? 

Shipman, however, suggests that Zelle’s talent for lying was not an indicator of cold-hearted duplicity, but of the “labile nature of her identity… a shape-shifter who became what those around her wanted her to be” , implying her lies were part of the greater performance of her life, serving to transfix and awe just like her dancing . Interestingly, in one of Zelle’s letters from Saint-Lazare Women’s Prison in June 1917, she herself posited that “Mata Hari and Madame Zelle MacLeod are two different people… that which is permitted to [one] is certainly not permitted to [the other]” , establishing a more nuanced relationship between Zelle’s personas. Moreover, though she had many flirtations with powerful men – including Jules Cambon (French ambassador to Madrid throughout 1906), the politician Henri de Marguérie, and French minister of war during 1914, Adolphe Messimy , they all testified that Zelle never questioned them about military/political affairs. However, Waagenar emphasizes that they were not only still admirers of Zelle during her trial , but Messimy later admitted to – at his wife’s behest – having downplayed/trivialized his relationship with Zelle , rendering these testimonies questionable at best. 

Beyond her character, the prosecution’s most prominent argument utilized Zelle’s admission that she was approached by the German consul in Amsterdam – Karl Kroemer – in late 1915 and offered 20,000 francs for her spying services . She accepted the money and left Germany immediately. However, it is crucial to note that Zelle, even throughout harsh prison conditions , maintained she had taken the money as retribution for a collection of furs worth 80,000 francs the Germans seized in 1914 (alongside freezing all of her financial accounts). Still, after accepting, she was assigned the official codename ‘H21’ with instructions to write to him using an invisible ink he provided – how could a court, at this point, pronounce her innocent? Shipman claims “[Zelle] never had the slightest intention of spying for Germany and felt no guilt or obligation to do anything for [Kroemer]” , as no evidence was found even by French investigators – desperate for proof – of any subsequent correspondence of importance (besides Zelle refusing to use the ‘insidious’ invisible ink ). Even after the head of French intelligence, Georges Ladoux, recruited her in August 1916 (solely to expose her as a German spy), her ineptitude was evident as she sent her findings uncoded/like regular mail, calling his office openly when he didn’t reply . In this vein, recent historians claim Zelle saw Kroemer as just another male acquaintance who supplied her with money, and was not a ‘German spy’ for accepting it, since that would imply an exchange of information with German intelligence that never occurred . By 1916, Zelle was then caught between the Germans – who she didn’t want to spy for, though they wanted her – and the French – whom she was willing to work with in exchange for permits/funds to visit her final love, the Russian pilot Vladimir de Massloff , who wanted to expose her, refused her information, and even initially denied their involvement in court. 

However, supporting the prosecution’s key claim that Zelle was still connected to Kroemer was a set of telegrams between German intelligence officers Ladoux intercepted/deciphered, describing the movements of H21 matching Zelle’s perfectly . Indeed, according to the seven military judges presiding over the case, this was the most persuasive piece of evidence – cementing that Zelle was still involved with German intelligence . However, historians like Mary Craig believe Ladoux tampered with these telegrams, as there is no record of them in their original form and he only ever relayed some French translations (conveniently removing all German gender-pronouns concerning H21 ). Further, just four days after Zelle’s execution, Ladoux himself (the driving force behind her comprehensive, clandestine 24-hour surveillance in 1916 – which yielded no damning evidence  – and French investigation overall) was arrested on the suspicion of being a German spy. Though later released, this fact completes the scapegoat theory: Zelle was a woman of too much emancipation living luxuriously while France suffered (most recently at Chemin des Dames in May 1917 ) and, for Ladoux, the perfect opportunity to divert attention and revitalize French morale, giving the home front someone to blame for the loss of ‘at least 50,000 of France’s sons’ – the headline marking her sentencing/execution by the media . 

Finally, the actual proceedings of the investigation and two-day trial must be analyzed. Here, it is noteworthy that the British/French began monitoring Zelle in 1915, when she was detained/questioned at the port of Falmouth by British officers who noted that, though “nothing incriminating [was] found, she is regarded by Police/Military… not above suspicion, and her movements should be watched” . Shipman analyses this encounter, noting that it was not Zelle’s belongings that concerned the British, but Zelle herself, with her linguistic skill, fashionable dress, and unaccompanied travel . A common thread throughout Zelle’s dealings with authority; she was perpetually scrutinized not only for her promiscuity, but her intelligence and independence. As evident in Bouchardon’s writing, judgement of her character rather than actions was similarly discussed alongside her guilt at court, describing her as “feline, supple and artificial… a born spy” . His fanatical resentment led him to not only imprison Zelle in Saint-Lazare , but psychologically/physically torment her (through isolation/lacking hygiene), in a way that lawyers now argue render Zelle’s confessions under interrogation inadmissible  (most importantly a nonsensical statement she made in prison about her German patriotism which heavily supported Ladoux/the prosecution). 

In conclusion, though Zelle had ties to German and French intelligence, the lack of evidence of her actually working for either enables more than just reasonable doubt in her verdict. And although her actions during the war could be seen as traitorous – especially in her dealings with Kroemer (whatever her intentions) – the prosecution’s main arguments are now heavily disputed, and the sensationalist claim that she caused the death of 50,000 Frenchmen almost completely discounted. As even the prosecutor, André Mornet, later stated to the writer Paul Guimard: “there wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat”.


3   Reflection 

 Through this investigation I gained insight into some of the methods utilized by historians studying events from the early 20th century and the inherent challenges thereof. By reading/collating books, newspaper articles and archive entries from 1906-2019, I learned to critically analyze different sources, piecing them together to create substantiated arguments and justifiable conclusions. I also contacted Pat Shipman, author of my main source, to inquire about her thoughts on recent developments in Mata Hari’s case 12 years after the publication of her book. This showed me the advantage of being a historian today, with access to international archives and communication with prominent historians made easy online. However, I also realized that in cases where the documents from multiple different countries must be analyzed, ‘the archives being open’ does not mean that pertinent information is accessible to modern historians immediately. As Shipman also emphasized – one of the greatest challenges in this case translation, since all of the files in Dutch, French and even English are released without further comment, translation or transcription, and I had to rely on second- or third-hand translations (if available) of valuable primary sources. 

However, I also faced a very different challenge: the prevalent aspect of gender politics in my question. Because although Zelle’s femininity/promiscuity is one of the key aspects I researched, I felt confronted by the lacking diversity of perspective, as every contemporary source on her ordeal was written by a man. What would a woman at the time have said about Zelle’s case? Those words have been lost to history and historiography, and it was truly frustrating to view Zelle only through the lens of the men that, figuratively/metaphorically executed her and took charge of her legacy. By contrast, nowadays her story is viewed generally with a feminist morality, and I had to evaluate to what extent this was any less obstructive to the ‘actual Mata Hari’ than that of the men 100 years ago. Ultimately, I learned to appreciate the complex role of a modern historians in examining history, as I confronted my own place in the chain of Zelle’s legacy: Is my work simply another distortion of Zelle’s actual life, or a valuable contribution to the revision of prejudiced historiography? How can I make sure I am not simply reinforcing the currently accepted belief about her espionage, but evaluating contrasting viewpoints sine ira et studio? Subsequently, becoming conscious of my own impact in writing (or rewriting) history has added greatly to my understanding of the discipline overall.


4   Bibliography


Charles River Editors. Mata Hari: The Controversial Life and Legacy of World War I’s Most Famous Spy. Charles River Editors, 2016. Accessed 19 Nov. 2019.


Craig, Mary W. A Tangled Web: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy. The History Press, 2017. Accessed 09 Nov. 2019.


Glaubitz, Sabine. “The Crumbling Legend of Mata Hara, Bohemian dancer turned WWI Spy.” DPA-International, 11 Feb. 2017, https://www.dpa international.com/topic/crumbling-legend-mata-hari-bohemian-dancer-turned-wwi-spy urn%3Anewsml%3Adpa.com%3A20090101%3A170211-99243063. Accessed 19 Sept. 2019.


Gomez Carrillo, Enrique. Mata Hari. Musaicum Books, 2017. Accessed 19 Aug. 2019.


Guimard, Paul. Le roman vrai du demisiècle: Du premier jazz au dernier Tzar. Paris, Denoël, 1959.


Hourly History. Mata Hari: A Life from Beginning to End. Hourly History, 2019. Accessed 12 Jun. 2019.


Knappman, Edward W. Great World Trials. United States: Visible Ink Press, 1997. Accessed 28 Oct. 2019.


“KV2/1.” National Archives, Kew. National Archives, 08 Aug. 1999. Richmond, UK. Accessed 10 Sept. 2019.


Lichfield, John. “Was Mata Hari framed?” The Independent, 19 Oct. 2001, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/was-mata-hari-framed-9245320.html. Accessed 19 Aug. 2019.


Proctor, Tammy M. Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. NYU Press, 2006. Accessed 30 Nov. 2019.


Shipman, Pat. Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. Harper Collins, 2007. Accessed 10 Sept. 2019.


Shipman, Pat. “Why Mata Hari Wasn’t a Cunning Spy After All.” National Geographic, 14 Oct. 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2017/11-12/mata-hari-history-killing/. Accessed 08 Mar. 2019.


Siegal, Nina. “Femme Fatale, Fallen Woman Spy: Looking for the Real Mata Hari.” The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/arts/mata-hari-netherlands.html. Accessed 13 Jun. 2019.


Solly, Meilan. “Revisiting the Myth of Mata Hari, from Sultry Spy to Government Scapegoat.” Smithsonian Magazine, 1 Nov. 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/revisiting-myth-mata-hari-sultry-spy-government-scapegoat-180967013/. Accessed 08 Mar. 2019.

Udovic, Edward R. "Saint Lazare as a Women's Prison: 1794-1932." Vincentian Heritage Journal 28, 1 (2008). 14-16. https://resources.depaul.edu/vincentian collections/story/Documents/Saint% 20Lazare%20Prison.pdf. Accessed 19 Aug. 2019.


Waagenaar, Sam. Mata Hari: A Biography. Appleton Century, 1965. Accessed 28 Sept. 2019.


Wheelwright, Julie. The Fatal Lover. Collins & Brown, 1993. Accessed 20 Aug. 2019.


Wheelwright, Julie. “Mata Hari Uncovered.” Marina Benjamin (editor). AEON, 29 Aug. 2017, https://aeon.co/essays/revamping-the-vamp-the-woman-behind-the-legend-of-mata-hari. Accessed 20 Aug. 2019.