"I will be celebrated... or notorious." -Mata Hari


Mata Hari. You have probably heard of her before, but do you know her story? She was an exotic dancer of Dutch descent, who was accused later in life of being a spy for Germany by the French. Hari was executed by a firing squad, and she never should have been. You see, it was later found that Hari was, in fact, not a spy. Two things she was which made her an easy target? Sexual and female.

I've been reading Femme Fatate: Love, Lies, and The Unknown Life of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman. This biography is well written and quite informative. There is much mention of Mata Hari's "seduction" and good looks, etc. During her formative years at a boarding school, she had an apparent affair with the headmaster, and was thus removed from school. Regardless of whether Hari flirted with the headmaster, she was only 16. I know there was probably not an age of consent at this time, but the whole anecdote sounds like rape to me. Yet, Hari got blamed for the headmaster's advances. Such seemed to be her life.

Hari married a much older gentleman who ended up giving her syphilis, which was then passed on to their two children (both of which died young). Her husband was most certainly verbally abusive and was quite promiscuous with other women. In later years, Hari stated (Shipman, 52):

I wanted to live like a colorful butterfly in the sun, rather than in the calmness of the inside of my room.

Eventually, their marriage ended, Hari lost her custody of her children to him, and thus began her career as an extraordinary dancer.


In 1903, Hari moved to Paris and began to get attention for her dancing. She was exotic to Europeans, because she never looked like one herself. She grew up looking different--she had dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Many had presumed she was of Indonesian descent. Her late husband was extremely cognizant of this, and he feared his wife's looks would make it seem like he married outside his race and caste.

Hari's dancing had taken off, and she was a star. Because the Dutch were neutral during WW1, Hari was able to travel freely and perform her act. Her traveling eventually got her arrested by New Scotland Yard officials. It was recorded that Hari had admitted to working for French intelligence (something some believe she only admitted to because it made her sound more "intriguing").

Hari was released, but not for long. After the French heard the German military transmit a radio message to Berlin about the helpfulness of a German spy named, H-21, they identified the spy as Mata Hari. Not much is known as to how the French identified "H-21" as Hari. The French arrested her in 1917, and she was put on trial for espionage on behalf of Germany. She never admitted to being a spy, and there was not much evidence on either side. Hari was found guilty.

In a letter to the Dutch Consul in Paris, she stated:

My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else... Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.

The dancer was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917. Hari was 41-year-old. She maintained her innocence until death.

According to biographer Russel Warren Howe, the facts regarding Mata Hari's case were vague until 1985, as the records had been sealed for 100 years. At the time, Howe was able to convince the French Minister of National Defense to open the file 32 years early. The records stated that Hari had been innocent of the charge of espionage.

A woman was killed for no reason. It was the ultimate abuse to Hari. Here was a woman who had suffered physical, emotional, and verbal abuse at the hands of her husband for years. She finally escaped him and made something of herself only to be at the hands of abusers once more.


The real reason Mata Hari was executed? Misogyny. During a conservative time where women's bodies were not to be seen nude or sexualized, Hari pushed the envelope. She enjoyed exotic dancing. This probably angered many straight-laced men. It seems all too easy for people to kill those in the exotic entertainment world, since these individuals are rarely seen as human by their conservative peers. Shipman writes:

The problem was not what Mata Hari said but who she was. She was a woman travelling alone, obviously wealthy and an excellent linguist - too educated, too foreign. Worse yet, she admitted to having a lover. Women like that were immoral and not to be trusted.

So much of Hari's life was about not being good enough. She was considered beautiful, but only because she looked different. Her murder may have been easier to carry out because of her ethnic ambiguity, which was something she dealt with constantly. Since race and class were so very important, and Hari herself posed as a Javanese princess of Hindu birth, the white French intelligence would not have felt necessarily "bad" about executing her.


Mata Hari lived a lavish, yet difficult, life. She had no one who cared about her--not even in the end. Her body was donated to science, as no friends or family claimed it. She was alone in the presence of men up until her death.

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