13th March 1905 was the day on which a new sensation arrived in Paris, in the sensuous shape of a dancer who gave her first performance under the name Mata Hari.
She had been born in the Netherlands in 1876 as Margaretha Zella, but had spent some time in Java as the wife of a man who mistreated her and from whom she divorced before returning to Europe.
At the age of nearly 30 she did not find it easy to find another husband or a secure job, so she moved from Amsterdam to Paris and re-invented herself as a mysterious temple dancer from the East who would captivate every man who saw her.
Her stage performance as Mata Hari (the name is a Malay term for the Sun) was highly erotic and, not surprisingly, extremely popular. However, she knew that her career in this role would be limited and turned increasingly to using her body in a different way. She found no shortage of clients, many of whom were rich and highly connected.
She travelled widely across Europe and, as war approached in 1914, she was on a six-month contract in Berlin. Although the facts are not completely clear, it appears that she was recruited by French Intelligence to seduce German officers and learn their secrets. It is not known how successful she was at this task.
However, after she had returned to Amsterdam in 1916 she was approached by the German consul and offered money to spy for Germany. She was also given a codename.
There is no evidence that Mata Hari ever spied for Germany, or intended to, and it is highly likely that she regarded the payment as compensation for the furs she had had to leave behind in Berlin. Her problem was that the codename was intercepted by French Intelligence who arrested Mata Hari and put her on trial as a double agent.
The trial was a travesty of justice in which Mata Hari stood no chance of being able to defend herself. The fact that she had taken German money was enough to condemn her.
Mata Hari therefore faced the firing squad on 15th October 1917. She refused the customary blindfold and blew a kiss to her executioners. Her body was later used for dissection at a French medical school.
© John Welford