Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012


She stood alone on the parade ground, defiant to the last.
Seductive, naked and erotic. But a spy? 
In her heyday, she had been a sensation, celebrated across Europe for dancing publicly in the nude. She had brought oriental exoticism to the outré clubs and cabarets of belle epoch Paris.
Now, on a chill autumn morning 1917, Mata Hari was to face execution by firing squad.
She refused to be tied to a stake and she also declined to be blindfolded. If death was to be her fate, then she wished to look the soldiers in the eye as they prepared to fire their rifles.
Mata Hari’s alleged crime was to have spied for the Germans during the First World War. But the case against her was at best a flimsy one: she herself vigorously protested her innocence.
'No, I will NOT take off my bra.'
Almost a century after her death, those protestations look as if they were genuine. Mata Hari was almost certainly executed by men driven by prejudice and prudishness: even the prosecutor would later admit that ‘there wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat.’
As the men of the firing squad lifted their guns, Mata Hari surely knew that she was being condemned for her scandalous dances that had delighted Paris in the years before the First World War.
Dressed to thrill
The young Margaretha Zella, as she was then known, had arrived in Paris in 1903. She was escaping an unhappy marriage to an alcoholic and promiscuous Dutch captain. He was violent as well, whipping her with the cat-o’-nine-tails.
‘I cannot live with a man who is so despicable,’ wrote Margaretha in a letter to her father. ‘I prefer to die before he touches me again.’
She left the captain soon after discovering that he’d transmitted his syphilis to her two children. In revenge, he ensured she was penniless. Her only hope of survival was to exploit her sexuality.
She moved to Paris were she soon found employment in a circus. Shortly afterwards she changed her name to Mata Hari (‘Eye of the Day’ in Indonesian) and became an exotic dancer.
Paris' Moulin Rouge: Mata Hari's dances were better
Openly flaunting her body - and dancing virtually in the nude - she caused a sensation. Her most famous act saw her steadily remove all her clothes until she was wearing just a jewelled bra and a few golden beads on her arms. Her bra was the only item of clothing she rarely took off: she had small breasts and didn’t like to reveal them in public.
The critics were in awe of the eroticism of her dancing. ‘Feline, trembling in a thousand rhythms, exotic yet deeply austere, slender and supple like a sacred serpent,’ wrote one.
Entrapmment: Georges Ladoux
The money rolled in as she was courted by Parisian high society. ‘Tonight I dance with Count A and tomorrow with Duke B,’ she once remarked. ‘If I don’t have to dance, I make a trip with Marquis C. I avoid serious liaisons. I satisfy all my caprices.’
In the spring of 1914 she was offered a lucrative contract by the Berlin Metropole, one that she accepted. But the world was on a fast track to war and it was soon to engulf her. Her money and her valuable fur coats were seized. Penniless and adrift, she had no option but to return to her native Holland.
It was in Holland that she was visited by the German consul, Karl Kroemer. He told her he was recruiting spies and offered her 20,000 francs and the code name H21 if she would spy for the Germans.
The day she died.
She took the cash as compensation for the money and coats that had been seized in Germany. But she always claimed to have had no intention of spying. Instead, she returned to Paris where she resumed her glamorous life, dancing for the many wealthy officers in the city.
Unbeknown to her, she was being tracked by two secret policemen who opened all her letters. They collected much information about her love life - including, embarrassingly, her nocturnal liaisons with their senior colleague. But there was no evidence of espionage.
Reputedly the execution of Mata Hari
Her fate was sealed when the head of French intelligence, Captain Georges Ladoux, got involved. His intelligence bureau had been much criticised for failing to achieve results: he knew that exposing Mata Hari as a spy would be a sensational coup - one that would rebound well on him.
He publicly accused her of passing secrets to the enemy and had her arrested on 13 February, 1917. It was said - wrongly - that she was naked when the officers came to arrest her.
There was almost no evidence against her; the prosecution did not find a single document that she was said to have passed to the Germans. But Captain Ladoux was determined that she be found guilty and he got his way. On 15 October, 1917, having been sentenced to death, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad. She was 41.
She crumpled to the ground as the shots rang out - the world’s most famous dancer died in an instant.
But the officer in charge of the execution could stop himself from walking over to her corpse and firing a bullet into her brain at point blank range.
It was a nasty and quite unnecessary coup de grace.

UK paperback
Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester

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