In July 1917, at the height of the First World War, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, alias Mata Hari, went on trial for her life before a military tribunal in Paris. She was accused of having passed French military secrets to the German enemy - secrets so vital they had cost no less than 50,000 French lives, the prosecutor claimed. As a sensational tale of sex and espionage unfolded before the court. Margaretha's anguished declarations of innocence fell on deaf ears. The tribunal had no hesitation in pronouncing her guilty and sentencing her to death by firing squad.
Dancing into danger
Yet the facts of Margaretha's life suggest she was more a harmless, bewildered victim of circumstance than a dangerous secret agent. Born in the Netherlands in 1876, she married a Dutch Army officer when she was 19 and lived for a time in Java and Sumatra. In 1905, back in Europe and separated from her husband, she embarked on a career as an oriental dancer, first under the name of Lady MacLeod and then as Mata Hari - a Malay expression meaning 'the eye of the day'.
Mata Hari was soon famous throughout the continent, not so much for the quality of her dancing as for her readiness to perform virtually naked on the stage. She acquired a string of lovers of various nationalities in the highest military and political circles, including Crown Prince Wilhelm, heir to the German throne.
After the First World War broke out in 1914, her international contacts made her a tempting target for spymasters looking to recruit agents. By this time down on her luck, she accepted money from both the German and French intelligence services. But she proved a hopeless secret agent. There is no evidence that either side ever got any worthwhile information out of her. Eventually, tired of paying money for nothing, the Germans deliberately allowed the French to discover her duplicity.
Although some of France's most influential men - many of whom were Margaretha's ex-lovers - appealed on her behalf, she was executed at Vincennes on October 15, 1917. Her unconcerned behaviour in the face of death fed the Mata Hari myth. Salacious journalists dwelt upon the black silk stockings and fur-trimmed cloak she insisted on wearing for the execution. As she courageously refused to be blindfolded, the story was put about that she believed on of her high placed lovers had ordered the rifles to be loaded with blanks.