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Who is Mata Hari?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 17 April 2014
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Mata Hari was a Dutch dancer and courtesan executed for alleged espionage during World War I. As an exotic dancer and suspected double agent, Mata Hari became seen as the classic femme fatale, and her story inspired many rather loosely based films and novels. Her activities as a spy, however, have never been proven, and there remains a great deal of mystery surrounding the woman's arrest and death.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle on 7 August 1876 in Leeuwarden, Friesland in the Netherlands. Her parents were both Friesland natives, and she had one older and three younger brothers. In 1882, Margaretha moved to Leiden with her family.

When Margaretha was 13, her father went bankrupt and the family had to move to a poor area of town. Her father moved to Amsterdam in an attempt to improve his circumstances, and left his wife in charge of the children. Tragically, Margaretha's mother passed away in 1891, and her father did not reclaim his children. Margaretha went to live with her godfather, and her brothers moved in with other relatives.

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In 1895, Margaretha married Dutch naval officer Rudolf MacLeod, and the couple moved to Java. Margaretha and her husband had two children, but their son died of poisoning in 1899. Margaretha eventually returned to the Netherlands and filed for a legal separation from her abusive husband in 1903. She gained custody of their daughter, but returned her to MacLeod after the he failed to pay child support and Margaretha was unable to provide for her child.

Margaretha moved to Paris later the same year and struggled to make ends meet as a circus performer and an artist's model. In 1905, she became much more successful as an exotic dancer and dubbed herself Mata Hari, meaning "sun" in Malay. She presented herself as a Javanese princess performing ancient, sacred dances.

Mata Hari soon became infamous for her daring costumes, captivating dances, and promiscuous behavior. She had relationships with many prominent political figures, including military officers and other influential men in Russia, France, and Germany. When war broke out in 1914, Mata Hari's relationships with high-ranking men and her frequent international travel began to raise suspicions.

As a citizen of the Netherlands, a neutral country during the war, Mata Hari was allowed to travel internationally. She often made her route from the Netherlands to France through Spain and England in order to avoid battlefields, and at one point, in an interview with British intelligence, she claimed to be a spy for the French. French intelligence did not confirm her claim, and to this day nobody knows whether she telling the truth.

In 1917, the German military attache - a special type of military official -sent radio messages from Spain to Berlin regarding a German spy designated as H-21. French intelligence intercepted these messages, which made clear that H-21 was Mata Hari. The puzzling fact that the German attache used a code known to have been broken by the French, has led some to suspect that the messages were fabricated with the purpose of turning the French against Mata Hari, if she was indeed their agent, as she had claimed.

Mata Hari was arrested on 13 February 1917 in France and executed by firing squad on 15 October after being convicted of spying for Germany. As no family members claimed Mata Hari's body, it was given to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, but has since disappeared with no explanation.

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