friesland shed no tears

The Leeuwarder Courant kept it short: 'Mata Hari was executed by firing squad yesterday morning. Just before five o'clock in the morning a car arrived at Saint Lazare Prison to collect Mata Hari. Two nuns, pastor Darbous and two inspectors from the intelligence service rode along with the condemned in the vehicle. The execution took place in the Polygon at Vincennes. She refused to be blindfolded. Her physical remains were buried at the graveyard in Vincennes. Mata Hari left a stack of letters for her lawyer.’

So, that was what Friesland had to make do with. Apart from the mistakes – her body was not buried but was donated to science, she wrote three letters and not a stack, Darbous’s real name was Arboux – this was all they said. No reference to Margaretha Zelle, or to Leeuwarden, her birthplace where she had lived for almost fifteen years. Yet the Leeuwarder Courant had happily copied a gushing review from the Nieuwe Courant on her debut as a dancer.

‘Was Leeuwarden ashamed of the spy whose shameful practices brought her before a French firing squad?’ asks journalist H.W. Keikes in the book he wrote in 1974, Het meisje Mata Hari (‘Mata Hari, the girl’).
That shame lingered for a long time. There was plenty of whispering about her, but was there any pride? No. And it was not only from shame, distaste, aversion. Take my own family: one aunt praised her to the heavens and the other despised her because she was a whore, she said, and a spy to boot.

It was an outsider who managed to turn the tide a little. Sam Waagenaar, the man who got hold of her scrapbooks, thought that portraying Margaretha Zelle as the black sheep of Friesland had to stop. He strongly supported erecting a statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, along with Keikes and a few others. The statue was unveiled in 1976. Many people thought it a load of rubbish, especially the bourgeoisie, not the statue itself – although it certainly wouldn’t win a prize at a beauty contest – but simply the fact that it was there. ‘They said, “How can you associate with such a trollop?”’ said Kooijman, the director of the Netherlands’ national tourism office.

And now she is cherished as the Frisian girl who became world famous. But then you have to ask yourself: how Frisian was she anyway? Okay, she was born there, went to school there, but she left when she was 15 and never returned. In her letters she rarely or never mentions her younger years in Leeuwarden. I only found one sentence about it: ‘I have nothing but pleasant memories of my childhood’.

At the secondary school run by director Rebecca Plaat she learned French, not Frisian. She was a something of an outsider, who while a child rode about in a goat-drawn cart with her little brothers. Her dresses were more beautiful than those of her classmates. ‘At a singing lesson, Margreet wore a red velvet dress, something unheard of in those days, and she had combed her hair into a high quiff’, recalled classmate Ybeltje Hoogslag. She never again saw the few girlfriends she had there.

As a contrast we have Doutzen Kroes who, 100 later is just as famous an international icon as Mata Hari, still a true Frisian girl and an ambassador of She e-mails, writes and texts in Frysk, she says in a film for Frisian-language broadcaster Omrop Fryslân. And just look at her on the cover of the jubilee issue of Vogue of just a few months ago.

Doutzen Kroes and Lara Stone on the cover of Vogue

She’s stark naked and in an intimate embrace with Lara Stone, another Dutch photo model. ‘Lara has such great breasts and Doutzen that amazing bum, perfect together,’ added photographer Mario Testino. Did anyone get steamed up about two naked women caressing each other? No of course, the magazine flew out of the shops, also thanks to Doutzen’s cuddle factor, something Mata Hari could never have matched.

When Doutzen was still in primary school, a Mata Hari hall was installed in the Museum of Friesland. Plans for a dedicated Mata Hari museum came to nothing, but a room was a good alternative. Curator Gerk Koopmans – who made a vain attempt to restart the process so that Mata Hari could be vindicated – asked two artists to make an atmospheric room that did justice to this famous woman from Leeuwarden.

Meanwhile, her portrait hangs majestically in the Historisch Centrum Leeuwarden among other famous Frisians, you can join a Mata Hari walk around the centre of the city, there is a Mata Hari square, a Margaretha Zelle Akwadukt near Leeuwarden (an aqueduct! It's a good thing she doesn’t know), a large exhibition is close to opening, and at 6.15 in the morning of 15 October the bells in Huizum will peal to commemorate her execution.

A hundred years later Friesland is crying a little.