Mata Hari, Executed by the French,

She Worked All Sides.

Special to The Great War Project.

(15 October) This is the story of the fabled female spy Mata Hari.

She was a professional dancer and mistress who first became a spy for France during World War I.

Suspected of being a double agent, she was executed in France on this day a century ago.

Mata Hari, Dutch born exotic dancer, German spy.

Mata Hari was Dutch-born, but she spied for all sides, including the Germans.

Her real name was Margueretha Gertruida Zelle, and she had been an exotic dancer, (and courtesan) in France since she was 27 years old.

According to several accounts of her life,

…she quickly became well-known in Paris, bringing a carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which attracted wide acclaim.

The most celebrated portion of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments.

But her dancing career went into decline after 1912.

After war broke out, she soon became of interest to both sides, given that her nationality was not one of the belligerents.

In November 1916, she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the British port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by the Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. She eventually admitted to working for the Deuxième Bureau, the French secret service. She was then released.

In late 1916, Mata Hari travelled to Madrid, where she met with the German military attaché. During this period, she apparently offered to share French secrets with Germany in exchange for money.

In January 1917, a German espionage officer transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy code-named H-21, whose biography so closely matched Mata Hari’s that it was patently obvious Agent H-21 could only be Mata Hari.

The Deuxième Bureau intercepted the messages and, from the information it contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari.

The messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, leading to the conclusion that the messages were contrived to have Mata Hari arrested by the French.

On 13 February 1917, she was arrested in a hotel room in Paris. She was put on trial on 24 July, accused of spying for Germany. It was alleged at her trial that she consequently caused the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers.

Found guilty, her execution was carried out on October 15 a century ago.

A photo purported to be taken at Mata Hari’s execution.


At the time of her execution, the British newspaper The Times wrote: “Mata Hari, the dancer, was shot this morning. She was arrested in Paris in February and sentenced to death by court-martial last July for espionage and giving information to the enemy.”

The paper continued: “She was in the habit of meeting notorious German spy-masters outside French territory, and she was proved to have communicated important information to them, in exchange for which she had received several large sums of money since May 1916.”

Poster for the film Mata Hari.

The story of Mata Hari remains the best known espionage story of World War One.