War Breaks Out
Given the Netherlands’ neutral stance in World War I, Mata Hari had no trouble crossing national borders. And she did exactly that — and often — which is one reason why her name appeared on a watch list of suspected spies.
What happened next depends on your source. It remains unclear whether she was definitely a spy for the Germans or for the French — particularly which she agreed to first and for what reason.
What we do know is that in 1914 she apparently had personal property (furs and some costumes) confiscated at the German border, at which point a German consul gave her money to extract information from the many army officers she bedded. It’s also believed that a French officer extended the same offer in 1916, which she accepted to earn money for a war-injured Russian lover.
Arrest And Trial Of Mata Hari
When a ship she was aboard entered the English port of Falmouth, police arrested Mata Hari and brought her to London, where in 1916 Sir Basil Thomson of Scotland Yard interrogated her. While ultimately released from custody, things began to snowball quickly from this charge of counter-espionage.
In January 1917, an officer at the German Embassy in Madrid sent a coded message to Berlin outlining the activities of a spy named H-21. The French intercepted this message, and identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Some believe that German intelligence knew this code had already been cracked — therefore setting her up for the fall.
Nevertheless, Mata Hari’s trial, to be held at a secret military tribunal, was set for July. The charges included spying for the Germans, making her responsible for the death of some 50,000 soldiers.
On the stand, Mata Hari admitted to taking the German consul’s money, but said she didn’t do the deeds he asked of her. She likewise added that she considered the money payment for her formerly confiscated property. Regardless, the French didn’t believe that she was innocent, and alleged that she possessed invisible ink, which would incriminate her as a spy.
Mata Hari insisted that the alleged ink was instead part of her makeup kit, but that didn’t seem to help her case. On the next day of the trial, the defense wasn’t allowed to question any of the witnesses that could have cleared Mata Hari’s name.
She could only write letters to the Dutch Consul, proclaiming her innocence: “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else …. Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.”