Lesson #29: Mata Hari

You know what’s cool? Spies are cool. They do cool stuff and get cool top secret gadgets. And if they get caught they get executed. That part is less cool. But the other stuff is cool. Secretly, I want to be Jason Bourne. That guy is cool!

But Bourne’s badassery aside, there have been some pretty interesting real spies in the course of history. Including Mata Hari.

I’ll spare everyone the details of her childhood, but apparently she had a penchant for ornate lies about her ancestry. She was essentially a mail order bride, her oldest child was poisoned to death in Java, where her husband was stationed, she got typhoid, her husband essentially stole their daughter and she eventually created a persona in Paris as an eastern dancer and when her age started to catch up with her, she became a courtesan.

Her espionage career developed because of a romance with a German police officer at the start of World War I, a friendship with a French officer and her Dutch citizenship. The neutrality of the Netherlands and the proximity to both countries allowed her to spy for both Germany and France (though some historians question whether she ever spied for Germany). Admittedly she wasn’t a particularly good spy. What information she was able to gather from a romance with a high ranking German officer was out-of-date or completely false and what information she gathered for the Germans, if anything, has remained a secret. German messages decoded by the French referred to her by codename, but this could possibly have been solely because they were on to her as a French spy and were goading the French into executing her themselves. Or she could have been a German spy as well. Either way, on 13 February, 1917 Mata Hari was arrested by French officials and charged with espionage. Although she consistently denied spying for Germany, she was sentenced to death and on 15 October, 1917 was executed by firing squad.

Mata Hari, ineffective spy though she was, has become legend more for her history than anything else…daughter of a wealthy merchant who went bankrupt, mail order bride, disgraced mother and wife, dancer cum courtier and failed spy. Her fame as a spy likely had more to do with her previous standing in French society as a dancer and courtier than her actual espionage. Either way,  on film, she has been portrayed by Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, among others.*

As usual, further information here and here.

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