Mata Hari: The spy who wouldn’t die

by Tara Finn

On 15 October 1917, Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad on the charge of spying for Germany.  From the time of her arrest, in February 1917, to her death, the case was covered extensively in the international news.  Yet she continued to appear in the newspapers for more than a decade afterwards.

Various actions continued to keep her story in the news.  These included the sale of her possessions in 1924 and later a stage production and film about her life.  The stories included the more implausible ideas suggested in 1917, for example, that she was responsible for betraying the secret of the tank to the Germans.  The French Government were also concerned both at the trial and in the 1920s that Mata Hari had been intimately connected with a minister of state.  

In the 1920s any spy attempting to sell their memoirs included a story of how they had met Mata Hari.  The sale of memoirs by spies was one of the most significant reasons her story continued to be in the news.  The significance of her alleged espionage amplified and her intelligence increased; there would be little point in claiming an acquaintance if her actions were inconsequential.  Her role in these stories was that of the dangerous femme fatale.  One theory argued that she had been responsible for betraying British Admiralty ship plans and through this had increased British losses at the Battle of Jutland.  The origin of the idea was a memoir.  There was no evidence to support it.  

Like her life, stories about her death continued to vary in the 1920s.  Most of the media reported that she declared her innocence until the end and had refused a blindfold.  Some sources argued that her final words were to condemn France, others that she blew a kiss at the firing squad.  At the time of her death, there were few public doubts about her guilt.  These began to creep in in the 1920s, when there was sufficient political distance from the war and the press could not be accused of anti-war efforts. 

There were even rumours that she had not been executed but had escaped and that her death had been stage managed and a substitution made.  The fact that her family did not claim the body, and the lack of a grave (understandable in the circumstances) effectively enabled the myth.  The most bizarre episode related to this was in 1929 when a body was found washed ashore on a beach near Bordeaux and the newspapers wondered if it was Mata Hari.  The rumour was that Mata Hari had been hidden away on the Isle of Hi until it was safe for her to emerge.  But instead of reaching the shore safely she had collapsed and been found on the beach.  However, the strong evidence against it, that the woman was not the right height to be Mata Hari and that people had seen the execution, meant that the rumour died.  The French paper La Liberte indicated that the woman did not even look like Mata Hari.  For a British audience, to accept this conspiracy theory meant denying the most interesting parts of the story of her execution – her refusal to wear a blindfold and the idea that she had consoled the nuns who accompanied her.  When the woman washed ashore was discovered to have been an escaped prisoner from the Fort of Ha, a Latvian woman called Benita Adamon, the Latvian Consulate alleged to have no trace of her.  

So why did Mata Hari continue to fascinate the media so long after her death?  Her image was radically different from that of other women.  She had enchanted Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century, although her image did not suit society in the First World War.  By the 1920s many countries had given women the vote, but struggled to adjust to the social differences after the war.  Mata Hari’s name became a byword for women’s perfidy and the use of sex to corrupt men.  Even now, after the French documents have been released showing that the government knew she was innocent, her name is misused.

Recommended reading:

Julie Wheelwright, The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage (London: Collins and Bright, 1920)

About the Author:

Tara Finn was previously a historian with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and worked on the First World War Centenary Commemorations.  She is currently completing a PhD in Military History with the University of Buckingham.

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