Trial, Scapegoat, Execution and After math of MATA HARI
Trial in the Second Bureau of the French War Ministry
In December 1916, the Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents. Five were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected of being a double agent for Germany and France. Two weeks after Mata Hari had left Paris for a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans, while the five others continued their operations. This development served as proof to the Second Bureau that the names of the six spies had been communicated by Mata Hari to the Germans.
On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées in Paris. She was put on trial on 24 July, accused of spying for Germany, and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Supposedly, secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her makeup.
A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!
— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.
Zelle's principal interrogator, who grilled her relentlessly, was Captain Pierre Bouchardon; he was later to prosecute her at trial. Bouchardon was able to establish that much of the Mata Hari persona was invented, and far from being a Javanese princess, Zelle was actually Dutch, which he was to use as evidence of her dubious and dishonest character at her trial.
Zelle admitted to Bouchardon that she had accepted 20,000 francs from a German diplomat in the Netherlands to spy on France, but insisted she only passed on to the Germans trivial information as her loyalty was entire to her adopted nation, France. In the meantime, Ladoux had been preparing a case against his former agent by casting all of her activities in the worst possible light, going so far as to engage in evidence tampering.
In 1917, France had been badly shaken by the Great Mutinies of the French Army in the spring of 1917 following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive together with a huge strike wave, and at the time many believed that France might simply collapse as a result of war exhaustion.
In July 1917, a new government under Georges Clemenceau had come into power, utterly committed to winning the war. In this context, having one German spy on whom everything that went wrong with the war so far could be blamed was most convenient for the French government, making Mata Hari the perfect scapegoat, which explains why the case against her received maximum publicity in the French press, and led to her importance in the war being greatly exaggerated.
The Canadian historian Wesley Wark stated in a 2014 interview that Mata Hari was never an important spy and just made a scapegoat for French military failures which she had nothing to do with, stating: "They needed a scapegoat and she was a notable target for scapegoating."
Likewise, the British historian Julie Wheelwright stated: "She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain."Wheelwright went on to describe Zelle as "... an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.”
Zelle wrote several letters to the Dutch Ambassador in Paris, claiming her innocence. "My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else .... Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself."The most terrible and heartbreaking moment for Mata Hari during the trial occurred when her lover Maslov—by now a deeply embittered man as a result of losing his eyes in combat—declined to testify for her, telling her he did not care if she was convicted or not. It was reported that Zelle fainted when she learned that Maslov had abandoned her.
Her defence counsel, veteran international lawyer Édouard Clunet, faced impossible odds; he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly. Bouchardon used the fact that Zelle was a woman as evidence of her guilt, saying:
"Without scruples, accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy."
Zelle has often been portrayed as a femme fatale, the dangerous, seductive woman who uses her sexuality to effortlessly manipulate men, but others view her differently: in the words of the American historian's Norman Palmer and Thomas Allen she was "naïve and easily duped", a victim of men rather than a victimizer.
Mata Hari herself admitted under interrogation to taking money to work as a German spy. It is contended by some historians that Mata Hari may have merely accepted money from the Germans without actually carrying out any spy duties.
At her trial, Zelle vehemently insisted that her sympathies were with the Allies and declared her passionate love of France, her adopted homeland. In October 2001, documents released from the archives of MI5 (British counter-intelligence) were used by a Dutch group, the Mata Hari Foundation, to ask the French government to exonerate Zelle as they argued that the MI5 files proved she was not guilty of the charges she was convicted of.
A spokesman from the Mata Hari Foundation argued that at most Zelle was a low-level spy who provided no secrets to either side, stating: "We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn't entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn't the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed."
Execution of MATA HARI
Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers just before dawn on 15 October 1917. She was 41. According to an eyewitness account by British reporter Henry Wales, she was not bound and refused a blindfold. She defiantly blew a kiss to the firing squad.
A 1934 New Yorker article reported that at her execution she wore "a neat Amazonian tailored suit, specially made for the occasion, and a pair of new white gloves", though another account indicates she wore the same suit, low-cut blouse, and tricorn hat ensemble which had been picked out by her accusers for her to wear at trial, and which was still the only full, clean outfit which she had in prison.
Neither description matches photographic evidence. Wales recorded her death, saying that after the volley of shots rang out, "Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life.
Then she fell backwards, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her." A non-commissioned officer then walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead.
Remains and 2017 French declassification
Mata Hari's body was not claimed by any family members and was accordingly used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. In 2000, archivists discovered that it had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, according to curator Roger Saban, during the museum's relocation.
Her head remains missing. Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of the body, but none of the remains could later be accounted for.
Mata Hari's sealed trial and related other documents, a total of 1,275 pages, were declassified by the French Army in 2017, one hundred years after her execution.