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Mati Hari
German Spy
World War I

From Spy Book, the Encyclopedia of Espionage


The most renowned woman spy in history -- although she probably wasn't one. She was naive and easily duped -- and trapped -- by her "friends" as well as her enemies during World War I. The Oxford English Dictionary describes her as the "Prototype for seductive spy."

Born in Holland as Margaretha Gertrud Zelle to a well-to-do shopkeeper and his Javanese wife, she attended a school for teachers but was forced to leave for having sex with the headmaster. At age 18 she married a Dutch naval officer who was 20 years her senior. They soon moved to the Dutch East Indies and had two children, but divorced in 1906.

She went to Paris in 1905, assuming the name Mata Hari (Eye of the Dawn) and the persona of a Javanese princess. She made her debut as an erotic dancer at the Oriental Studies Museum, followed by performances to ecstatic audiences throughout Europe and in Egypt. She also began having wealthy and influential lovers.

During World War I Mara Hari had an affair with a 25-year-old Russian pilot flying with the French, Capt. Vadim Maslov, son of a Russian admiral. When Maslov was wounded in the summer of 1916, she asked permission to visit him in a forward hospital. French officials at the Deuxieme Bureau gave her permission -- in return for her agreeing to spy on Germans, including possibly the crown prince, whom she knew. She was to receive one million francs for her efforts.

To carry out her assignment, Mata Hari traveled to Spain en route to neutral Holland, from which she could cross over into Germany to rendezvous with the crown prince. En route to Holland, her ship stopped in Falmouth, England, where she was detained and interrogated. British officials warned her not to go to Germany and sent her back to Spain. There she met and had an affair with the German military attache, Major Kalle. He sent a message to Berlin in code that he knew the Allies could read, saying that spy "H-21" had proved valuable.

Mata Hari returned to Paris on January 4, 1917, and was arrested on February 13. Although the French and British intelligence services suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Secret ink was found in her room -- incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her makeup. She admitted to taking money from Germans but claimed that it was for love, not spying.

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