A symposium about the life, activities and legacy of World War I-era double spy Mata Hari is to take place in London this month, on the 100th anniversary of her death by execution. Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Holland in 1876. In 1895 she married Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch Army Captain of Scottish descent serving the Dutch colonial administration of what is now Indonesia. She eventually divorced the alcoholic and abusive MacLeod, who was 20 years her senior, and joined the circus in Paris. Eventually she became wildly popular as an exotic dancer, a position that placed her in direct and close contact with several influential men in France, including the millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet, who became her longtime lover. Several of her male devotees came from military backgrounds from various European countries. Most historians agree that by 1916 Mata Hari was working for French intelligence, gathering information from her German lovers. However, in February of the following year she was arrested by French counterintelligence officers in Paris and accused of spying on behalf of the German Empire. French prosecutors accused her of having provided Germany with tactical intelligence that cost the Triple Entente the lives of over 50,000 soldiers.
On October 28, an international symposium will take place at City University, one of 28 colleges and research centers that make up the University of London. Entitled “The Legacy of Mata Hari: Women and Transgression”, the symposium will bring together historians, museum curators, as well as intelligence and military experts who have spent decades studying the story of Mata Hari. They include her biographers from Holland, historians from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, German and French military intelligence historians, as well as a representative from the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. The symposium’s host and keynote speaker is Dr Julie Wheelwright, Lecturer in Creative Writing (non-fiction) and director of the Master’s program in Creative Writing at City University. Dr Wheelwright is considered one of the world’s foremost specialists on Mata Hari and is author of the 1992 book The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage.
The organizers of the symposium say that recently unearthed personal letters by leading figures in Mata Hari’s life, as well as newly declassified government documents, present researchers with a unique opportunity to reassess the Dutch double spy’s character, motives and legacy. Another purpose of the symposium will be to explore the reality and stereotypes of the use of female sexuality in espionage, the role of women in war and intelligence, as well as the historical contribution of women spies in World War I. Several other events are planned on the occasion of the centenary of Mata Hari’s death across Europe, including a major new exhibition about her in her home down of Leeuwarden in Holland’s Fries Museum, which is scheduled to open later this month.
Author: Joseph Fitsanakis