about spies

‘Confidentially, just between you and me – there wasn’t even enough [evidence] to book her.’

Try to imagine it. Being shot dead because they think you’re responsible for the deaths of (maybe) 50,000 men and then it turns out they don’t have shred of evidence. Facts are distorted, events imagined, lies told one after the other. Plus your own stupidity, of course. If you’d only told the truth, without all the theatrics.

The man who remarked on the lack of evidence – Lieutenant André Mornet, Public Prosecutor – was not the first. Mata Hari was perhaps the greatest spy of this century, he said behind closed doors during the trial. Words that warmed the heart of Georges Ladoux, head of the French intelligence service, the man responsible for her arrest, and who was himself detained on suspicion of espionage four days after her execution.

I often think of Non, who hadn’t seen her mother since she was 6 years old. ‘My darling Nonnie’, as her mother always called her. Mama, who left her in the Netherlands and years later tried to secretly pick her up her from school and take her with her to Paris. Mama, who wrote her a letter just before she died, a letter she never received, a letter she must have tried to trace.

For all the years that her mother was abroad Non lived with her father, who remarried twice. Her father’s third marriage to Non’s second stepmother took place on 3 October 1917, twelve days before her mother’s execution. In 1919, Non, born in the Dutch East Indies, decided to accept a teaching position in her native country. But she never left: on the morning of 10 August she was found dead in her bed, presumably due to a cerebral haemorrhage.

How does it feel if your mother is branded a double agent? Ask Mona (LINK 1), who had a letter column for 25 years in the weekly magazine Story. Her mother, Leonie Brandt-Pütz (LINK 2), was also a double agent, but during World War II. She was of a very different class from Mata Hari. She worked for both the intelligence service of the Netherlands’ criminal investigations department and the Gestapo.

Compared to her, Mata Hari was just a village girl, wrote Gerard Aalders of the NIOD on the back of his book, Leonie. Het intrigerende leven van een Nederlandse dubbelspionne (‘Leonie. The intriguing life of a Dutch double agent’).

Loek Kessels, Mona’s real name, wrote the book Een kusje op je ziel (‘A kiss on your soul’) about her mother, who was a heavy drinker who terrorised her daughter. She was about 14 years old when she heard that her mother had been a spy. ‘To be honest, it didn't really affect me one way or another, even though it of course sounded interesting.’

Mata Hari was shot to death; Leonie Brandt was captured twice by the Germans and survived Ravensbrück concentration camp. Mata Hari became world famous; Leonie Brandt is hardly known at all. Both wanted to be in the spotlight, both were artistes (actress and dancer), both lived in a fantasy world.

Loek Kessels cannot remember her mother ever saying anything nice to her. Non MacLeod, on the other hand, was pampered by her mother as a toddler. ‘Don’t hit mummy,’ she would cry when MacLeod once again started slapping his wife around. But what did Non think and feel when her mother was killed by the firing squad? We don’t know. Did she believe that her mother was a hardened spy? No idea. Back then, newspapers, including those in the Netherlands, simply parroted the prosecutor’s hollow rhetoric.

There are spies and there are spies.

‘Technically she was a spy,’ writer and publisher Jean-Pierre Turbergue told us as we, together with a group of journalists, hung on his every word during a visit by the Museum of Friesland to Vincennes, close to where she was shot. ‘But,’ he added, ‘you got the bullet for merely speaking to the enemy.’

When the Frenchman started digging into Mata Hari’s file and opened Box 1, he became quite unwell. Shoot a Dutch girl? Treat her like an animal? With Box 2, he thought, hmm, she might have been guilty after all. Box No. 3 brought him back in balance, but what he read sparked the idea that here was a great story, a fantastic piece of history.

As the busy director of a publishing house, he did not have the time to figure it all out by himself. So he enlisted the help of scholar Léon Schirmann and together they started sifting through the secret French file. Their conclusion: the burden of proof was shaky all round. Mata Hari was the victim of a defamation campaign and propaganda war, is what they said during their presentation to journalists from 48 different countries at the Grand Hotel in Paris. There was only one thing: request that the case be reopened. The French Minister of Justice wouldn’t budge, not even later, when a second request was submitted, together with the Mata Hari Foundation from Leeuwarden.

There was no chance of repairing her reputation.

And so here we are. With a history that is still alive and kicking 100 years later. Look, she’s in the top ten of the most famous and dangerous spies. Famous? Yes. Dangerous? No, never was. You can read the documents for yourself. The French file has long been online, as have other archives.

In fact, everything is best summed up in one single sentence that Jean-Pierre Turburgue in Paris.

‘Keep the mystery around, she deserves it’.

This is the 23rd and final blog on our website about Mata Hari.

These blogs have been compiled in the book "My Mata Hari", which will be on sale in bookstores and the shop of the Fries Museum soon.

- Hanneke Boonstra

Mata Hari