In the fall of 1917, a French military court sentenced the Dutch dancer known as Mata Hari to death. Charged with spying for the German Reich, she was executed on October 15, in Vincennes.
Was she guilty or not? While that question has dominated traditional historical debate, it seems less significant than the fact that the cultural image-makers, catering to male fantasies, turned Mata Hari into a legendary figure that fulfilled the stereotype of woman as evil temptress.
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. Her parents were wealthy, and she and her siblings grew up in a sheltered, bourgeois world. The young Margaretha was gifted with an active imagination. While still a young woman she began to construct her own biography, imbuing it early on with an exotic background. On July 11, 1895, 18-year-old Margaretha married an officer named Campbell MacLeod, who was twenty years her senior. She gave birth to a son, Norman John, on January 30th.
Four months later, MacLeod’s military service took the family to Java. It was to be a decisive time in the life of Margaretha Zelle MacLeod: she lost her son and gave birth to a daughter, while her husband’s brutality destroyed their marriage. But it was also in this exotic world that she became acquainted with the dances that would later inspire her work as a dancer.
Homesick, Margaretha returned to Amsterdam, where she was divorced in 1906. The daughter remained with her father, leaving Margaretha free finally to discover the world for herself. She explored Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Vienna, successfully establishing herself as the exotic Javanese dancer “Mata Hari,” a name that would serve from then on as a trademark for feminine decadence. Appearing as Mata Hari, Zelle was wildly successful (due not least of all to her nude performances) and was part of the wild and restless prewar jet-set.
The situation changed dramatically with the outbreak of World War I. Mata Hari crisscrossed Europe, seemingly without plan or purpose, trying to gain a foothold. Because of her international background – and probably also due to her numerous affairs with military officers - she began to associate with various secret services on both sides. From then on, Mata Hari’s trail disappears in a maze of speculation and inconclusive evidence with few witnesses.
Just as the person of Margaretha Zelle MacLeod remains inaccessible, so is Mata Hari’s life impenetrable. That is why it is pointless to speculate whether or not she was a spy. The impression remains, however, that she was not only helpless in the face of the war machine, but also naïvely ignorant of the gravity of her situation after her arrest by the French military. Maybe that is why Mata Hari / Margaretha Zelle MacLeod remains so oddly invisible – a fact all the more unfathomable, considering that she had actively determined the course of her life and constructed her own legendary persona.