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Tuesday, 16 October, 2001, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Mata Hari 'was framed'
Mata Hari - a scene said to be her execution, but its authenticity is in question
Mata Hari was executed by French firing squad
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

The French Government is considering a request to re-open the case of Mata Hari, the Dutch-born erotic dancer who charmed her way into European society before being shot as a spy in World War I.

Two plaintiffs - Mata Hari's home town of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands and the Mata Hari Foundation - have lodged an official plea at the Ministry of Justice in Paris, asking for a review of her 1917 trial.

We can show that the elements that led to her condemnation do not hold together

Lawyer Thibault de Montbrial
They say new evidence has come to light that shows she was convicted on trumped-up charges.

"We can show that the elements that led to her condemnation do not hold together," said lawyer Thibault de Montbrial, who presented the suit.

"France would stand taller if it seriously re-examined its judicial history."

Erotic dancing

The story of Mata Hari - born Margaretha Zelle in 1876 - has passed into modern-day legend.

The daughter of a Dutch hat-seller and a Javanese mother, at the age of 19 she married a Scottish captain, left him seven years later and then set out for Paris to seek her fortune in the early years of the last century.

Her highly suggestive and near-naked dances took the "haut monde" by storm.

Mata Hari
MI5 decided to keep tabs
"She didn't exactly dance; but she knew how to remove her clothes piece by piece and move her long, proud, dusky body," wrote the French authoress Colette.

She became famous across Europe and took a succession of well-connected lovers, but when World War I broke out she found herself stranded in Berlin. Her theatrical triumphs were on hold, and the money began to dry up.

A year later, back in the Netherlands and bored, she was approached by German intelligence, who believed she would have privileged access to top-level circles in Paris, and asked to become a spy. She accepted and became Agent H21.

But she was never any good at it.

Mata Hari was not made to be a spy - she was simply a woman who liked to get the most out of life

Campaigner Leon Schirmann
When she moved to Paris, the British and French secret services immediately blew her cover, and in 1916 she swapped sides and agreed to work for the French. They dispatched her to Madrid to seduce the German military attache there, a Major Kelle.

It was he who brought about her execution.

Telegrams he sent back to Berlin - which were intercepted by the French - suggested that H21 was back working for the Germans. Mata Hari was arrested on a train in February 1917, tried and shot by a firing squad outside Paris on 15 October.

Nearly a century later painstaking research by a 92-year-old French resistance veteran has given substance to the long-standing doubts about the conviction.


Leon Schirmann is convinced she was sacrificed by the French authorities in a bid to whip up patriotic fervour.

"Mata Hari was not made to be a spy. They used her as part of an anti-German propaganda campaign. She was simply a woman who liked to get the most out of life, and she didn't realise that with the war everything changed," she said.

Digging through French, German and Dutch archives, Mr Schirmann has unearthed two vital new elements.

First he claims he can show that the German military attache - Major Kelle - deliberately delivered Mata Hari to the French.

He knew that his telegram would be intercepted by the French, so he filled it with incriminating information, implying that she was an extremely valuable German source - even though intelligence reports from Berlin showed she was almost useless.

Missing head

Second, Mr Schirmann says that officials from French counter-intelligence, the "deuxieme bureau", lied under oath at her trial. They accused Mata Hari of fabricating some of her testimony, even though they were well aware it was true.

Under French law for a "trial review" to succeed, important new pieces of evidence need to be presented.

The Justice Ministry said Mata Hari's case would be "studied - like any other."

After she was shot in the Bois de Vincennes, Mata Hari's head was removed and for many years kept - along with those of other celebrity criminals - in Paris's museum of anatomy.

A year ago researchers were baffled to discover it had gone missing.

See also:

26 Jan 99 | Wartime spies
MI5 watched Mata Hari
26 Jan 99 | Wartime spies
Spaniard behind the D-day landings
27 Jan 99 | Wartime spies
Airborne threat of Nazi pigeons
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