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MATA HARI - The spy who wasn't

Jul 29, 2011, 11:44 AM

In the world we live in today, where sovereign nations develop intelligence and technologies (both military and non military) that is deemed to give them a protective edge, spying which could also be known as espionage (where an individual obtains information which is considered confidential or secret without the prior permission of the legitimate holder or owner) is viewed as a serious offence especially if it is for a competitor or adversary. This has been the case for a while, all the way back to centuries ago. People have been known to be tried (sometimes not) jailed or executed for the alleged offence. One such incident was that of Mata Hari in 1917.

The dawn of the twentieth century brought with it a lot of unrest, one of the most notable being the First World War. At around this time, Europe was in upheaval, with allies forged and enemies fought. France was one of such nations on edge and not willing to tolerate any threat to its security or its sovereignty. Unfortunately, Mata Hari had chosen that time to make her presence felt in France and paid the ultimate price, her life. But who was this renowned lady and most famous ‘spy’ of possibly all times who was famed for her beauty, her numerous military and high profile lovers, her provocative oriental dancing, flirtatiousness and above all, espionage.

The truth is sadly not as exciting as had been portrayed. Madam Hari was said to be. In fact she was not oriental, talented or even a spy. Mata Hari was the stage name adopted by a plump, middle-aged Dutch divorcee. Her real name was Mrs. Maragaretha Macleod ‘nee’ Zelle, born in the Neatherlands in August 1876. Having met and married her husband at the age of eighteen after answering a newspaper advert for a wife, she had finally left her alleged alcoholic spouse (Scottish) in the East Indies [now Indonesia], opting to become a dancer in Europe. Hence the journey that led to her untimely demise at forty one years had begun.

It was discovered that the evidence of her alleged espionage on behalf of the German Kaiser was based merely on her being unfortunately mistaken for a known German agent. Clara Benedix, by the British in November 1916. In that month Mrs. Macleod was arrested in Falmouth, Cornwall, on board the SS HOLLANDIA (courtesy of Reader’s Digest) while she was on her way to Holland. The police subsequently released her when they realized their error. However, she was later remanded into custody in France and then charged with having been in contact with German intelligence officers in Madrid-

At her trial in Paris her lurid lifestyle was used to deliberate damning effect. She was prosecuted and found guilty, sentence to death by firing squad. It was only in 1963, when the secret files relating to her case were released, that her legend was reassessed. But it was too little to late to make a difference. It was just as in the case of Joan of Ark, declared guilty and burnt at the stake only to be deemed innocent over half a century after the fact. Only in her case, it hadn’t been for spying.

Who could forget the story of Lisa Ling, captured in North Korea and accused of spying? She, her loved ones and the world had been distraught, knowing that it could have ended very badly for her. That’s how serious espionage is taken.

Right after her execution, there was a public outcry. It was said that there was no way an exotic dancer could have been a spy. Was the intelligence that led to her arrest flawed? Was she set up due to her increasing unpopularity during the time of war and unrest, when she was seen as a promiscuous woman offering cheap thrills?

History records that her corpse was never claimed and eventually used for medical purposes, possibly as a kedabra. Her remains were later said to have gone missing. So ended the life of a woman, daring, adventurous, blooming in life and a mother none the less. In death, her legacy lives.