Marguerite Zelle MacLeod, better known as Mata Hari was a sensation in the last years of the ‘Belle Epoque’ with her wild and exotic dances. However it was her espionage activities that have ensured her name is a household word over a hundred years after her execution in 1917 as a spy. The question as to whether she was actually a double agent is still a contentious issue and may never be resolved.
By 1914 Mata Hari’s popularity had begun to decline in Paris, she had to cast her net further afield and rely more on the favour of rich and powerful men to support her lavish lifestyle. It was this that many of her biographers believe she was ultimately judged on.
In August 1914 Mata Hari was performing in Berlin with a string of lovers. When war was declared the mood against foreigners changed. Desperate to return to France and escape the war fever sweeping through Germany, she broke her contracts and fled. Unable to get to France and forced to leave her money and possessions behind, she returned to her native Holland.
While there she was approached by Carl Cremer, an Honorary German consul, who offered her 20,000 Francs to spy for Germany. Mata Hari accepted the money but whether or not she actually considered herself recruited as a spy is questionable. She may actually have taken the money in compensation for everything she left in Germany.
When Mata Hari returned to Paris in 1916 she was recruited to spy for the French, by Captain Georges Ladoux, the head of French counter Intelligence. She planned to pull off an intelligence coup by going to Belgium and seducing the German Governor-General. She would then cultivate him as an intelligence source and sell the information to Ladoux for a million Francs.
However on her way to Belgium, Mata Hari’s steamer had to pass through British waters and during a routine customs check she was mistaken for the spy Clara Benedix. She was interviewed in Scotland Yard by ‘Blinker’ Hall the head of naval Intelligence and Sir Basil Thompson the head of Special Branch. At the end of it they were convinced that she was not Benedix, but thought she was suspicious. They contacted Ladoux who informed them that he thought she was a spy and that he was pretending to use her in the hope that she might give herself away as a spy. Hall and Thompson released her, but would not allow her to travel onto Belgium and sent her to Spain.
On her own and ignored by Ladoux, Mata Hari used her initiative and seduced Major Arnold Kalle, the German military attaché in Spain. He gave her some low grade information which Ladoux did not consider worth a million francs. She was arrested not long after her return to Paris; Ladoux had by this time compiled a dossier of evidence against her.
Kalle had sent telegrams to his superiors in Berlin that incriminated Mata Hari. They were sent in a code known to have been broken by the French so it is possible that he was deliberately trying to cast doubt on her. These telegrams had been intercepted by French intelligence and were the only real evidence presented at her trial that she was a double agent. French detectives followed Mata Hari when she was in Paris, but found no evidence that she actually gathered information or passed it on to Germany. However she admitted to taking their money on the understanding that she would.
France was swept with spy mania at the time, rocked by scandals of German plots to buy newspapers in an effort to undermine Frances will to fight, unrest was rife and the government needed to regain control.
Ladoux was therefore under considerable pressure to catch spies and there is evidence to suggest he doctored the telegrams to make them more incriminating and ensure her conviction. He certainly believed a ‘woman of the world’ like her to be guilty and her promiscuous lifestyle proved it.
However, Ladoux was also arrested as a spy three days after Mata Hari’s execution. This has given rise to speculation that he framed Mata Hari as a way of deflecting attention from his own espionage activities. Ladoux had been denounced by his former driver Pierre Lenoir, who had been arrested for buying a French newspaper with German money. When Lenoir was interrogated he claimed that he had been set up by the Germans and that he was working for Ladoux.
While Lenoir was executed Ladoux was subject to extensive investigation, but was never put on trial and after his release continued to serve in the French army after the war. It is therefore unlikely that he was a spy. Nonetheless a cloud has hung over him ever since.
The investigations into Ladoux and Lenoir are still sealed, over a hundred years after the event, while Mata Hari’s file is now open, giving rise to a lot of speculation, but the truth may never be known.