France Executes Mata Hari Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The losses that France incurred during World War I frustrated the country’s concerned citizens. Mata Hari’s execution on charges of espionage was considered a remarkable victory for French Intelligence, and the death of the notorious dancer and courtesan also made Mata Hari into a legendary symbol of the seductive female spy.

Summary of Event

In the early morning of October 15, 1917, a firing squad of twelve French soldiers executed forty-one-year-old Mata Hari, a famous exotic dancer and courtesan. She had been arrested in Paris, tried by a closed military court, and convicted of espionage: Her accusers asserted that she had acquired Allied military secrets from lovers and sold them to German intelligence. Allegedly, the stolen information had resulted in the deaths of thousands of French soldiers. The validity of these charges was questioned by some, however, and Mata Hari’s guilt, her alleged spying activities, the secret trial process, and the actual reasons for her execution were all surrounded by mystery and debate. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];espionage [kw]France Executes Mata Hari (Oct. 15, 1917) [kw]Executes Mata Hari, France (Oct. 15, 1917) [kw]Mata Hari, France Executes (Oct. 15, 1917) World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];espionage [g]France;Oct. 15, 1917: France Executes Mata Hari[04350] [c]Crime and scandal;Oct. 15, 1917: France Executes Mata Hari[04350] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 15, 1917: France Executes Mata Hari[04350] [c]World War I;Oct. 15, 1917: France Executes Mata Hari[04350] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 15, 1917: France Executes Mata Hari[04350] Mata Hari Ladoux, George Bouchardon, Pierre Mornet, André Clunet, Édouard Kalle, Arnold Messimy, Adolphe-Pierre

Two nuns, Sister Leonide and Sister Marie, had accompanied Mata Hari during the car ride from the Saint-Lazare women’s prison in Paris to the place of execution, a field at the castle of Vincennes, on the edge of Paris. Also in attendance were her defense lawyer and former lover, Édouard Clunet, who was a prominent expert in international corporate law but not an experienced court lawyer. Pierre Bouchardon, the military prosecutor who had interrogated Mata Hari and prepared the case against her, also witnessed the event.

Only one loose rope around Mata Hari’s waist bound her to the pole, and she had refused to be blindfolded. By some accounts, she blew a kiss to her executioners before they shot her; by all accounts, she faced death with dignity and courage. To the end, she proclaimed her innocence. Since no one claimed the body, it was donated for dissection at the University of Paris medical school. Her belongings were sold to pay for her trial.

Born into a prosperous Dutch family on August 7, 1876, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle married a Dutch military officer at the age of eighteen. After separating from her husband, in 1905 she moved to Paris and became the exotic striptease dancer known as Mata Hari, which means “eye of the dawn” in the Southeast Asian language of Malay. By the time World War I began, she had attracted powerful and wealthy lovers, including many German and French military officers.

In 1916, she fell in love with Vadim de Masloff, a young Russian officer. When she and Masloff started to run out of money, Mata Hari offered to spy for French intelligence captain George Ladoux. He hired her to spy in German-occupied Belgium, and from there Mata Hari worked her way east to Berlin to see Germany’s Crown Prince Wilhelm, a former lover. In return, she was to receive a million francs. Ladoux instructed her to return from Berlin to The Hague, where an agent would contact her. However, when Mata Hari’s ship stopped in Falmouth, Cornwall, England, the British mistook her for a German spy named Clara Benedix and placed her under arrest. After several days of interrogation, they released her, and she returned to Spain. She wrote to Ladoux for new instructions, but he never responded.

In December of 1916, Mata Hari attempted to extract information from a new lover, Major Arnold Kalle, the German military attaché in Spain. He suspected her of spying on him and deliberately framed her: Using a code that he knew the French had already broken and would be able to intercept, Kalle sent radio messages to Berlin naming Mata Hari as the valuable German spy H-21, an operative who passed sensitive military secrets to the Germans. British Intelligence also alerted the French about Mata Hari’s activities with the German consul.

At the time of Mata Hari’s arrest, the French were suffering huge losses in the battlefield, and military morale was low. The government was under tremendous pressure to catch spies, and in response they brought charges against more than five hundred foreign citizens. More than three hundred of these would be executed by the end of the war. Mata Hari joined the ranks of the accused on February 13, 1917, when the French arrested her for espionage. While she awaited trial, the military tribunal’s chief investigator, Captain Pierre Bouchardon, interrogated her at least seventeen times. She declared her innocence and denied being a double agent. Before the trial began, the case was transferred to the chief prosecuting attorney, André Mornet.

On July 24 and 25, Mata Hari was tried by a closed military court on eight counts of spying. According to the rules of military trial, her lawyer, Édouard Clunet, was not permitted to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses or even the defense’s own witnesses. Still, Mata Hari persistently denied accusations that she had betrayed military secrets given to her by Allied military officers and insisted that she had actually worked for French Intelligence. Indeed, there was no evidence that she gave the Germans anything but gossip, and the defense presented a letter from a former lover, General Adolphe-Pierre Messimy, the former French minister of war, who affirmed that he and Mata Hari had never discussed diplomatic or military affairs. The prosecution, however, showed the court the intercepted German military radio messages that identified Mata Hari as Agent H-21of the Cologne intelligence center. Mornet declared her the greatest female spy of the century, and the court found her guilty and sentenced her to death. Years later, both Bouchardon and Mornet would admit in interviews that there had not been sufficient evidence to convict Mata Hari of the serious charges for which she had been executed.


Within a few years of her execution, Mata Hari had become a legend and the most celebrated female spy in history. By the time of her arrest, she had already become a famous exotic dancer who had turned striptease into an art form. After her execution, she became the symbol of the treacherous, seductive femme fatale, and her name became synonymous with espionage. Great debate remained, however, over the issue of whether she had actually been a dangerous double agent or German spy.

In 1999, previously sealed British intelligence files were opened, and they showed that officials had found no evidence of espionage after interrogating Mata Hari in 1915 and again in 1916. Since neither French nor British military records were able to produce evidence of Mata Hari’s guilt, increasingly vocal concerns were raised about a miscarriage of justice. In 2001, the Mata Hari Foundation and the Dutch town of Leeuwarden asserted that she had been a scapegoat and the victim of a state conspiracy. They requested a new trial and a pardon from the French Ministry of Justice.

Ultimately, Mata Hari became a cultural icon and was immortalized in cinema, literature, and the arts. In 1976, a bronze statue of her was erected in Leeuwarden, and many actresses have portrayed her in films: Asta Nielsen in Mata Hari (1920), Magda Sonja in the German film Mata Hari (1927), Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931), Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored (1931), Jeanne Moreau in the French film Mata Hari Agent H21 (1965), Zsa Zsa Gabor in the comedy Up the Front (1972), and Sylvia Kristel in Mata Hari (1985). In 2003, Maruschka Detmers played Mata Hari in the French television program Mata Hari: La Vraie Histoire. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];espionage

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bentley, Toni. Sisters of Salome. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. A former dancer, Bentley examines how Mata Hari and three other famous women portrayed the biblical femme fatale Salome. Discusses the impact of striptease performances on modern dance and feminism. Illustrated. Bibliography, illustrations, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coulson, Thomas. Mata Hari: Courtesan and Spy. 1930. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004. One of the books on which the 1931 Greta Garbo movie was based. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howe, Russell Warren. Mata Hari: The True Story. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986. A readable biography based on extensive research that included access to sealed French records. The author concludes that there is not sufficient proof that Mata Hari was a spy. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostrovsky, Erika. Eye of Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari. New York: Macmillan, 1978. A well-researched portrait of the woman behind the legend and of the events that contributed to her transformation into the infamous Mata Hari. Bibliography, index, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wheelwright, Julie. The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage. West Sussex, England: Collins & Brown, 1992. The author asserts that wartime culture generally supported the erroneous idea of the treacherous and seductive female spy, and that Mata Hari was a victim and an embodiment of this myth. Illustrated. Index and bibliography.

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Categories: History