Monday, July 24, 2017

When Fake News Kill. Mata Hari, the Spy Who Never Was

One century after her death, Mata Hari remains for us the prototypical figure of the female spy. An extreme case of “femme fatale”; she is seen as someone who not only seduced men for her lust of money and power, but also for the greater lust of having them killed by the thousands on the battlefield. But she never was what she was said to be. Rather, she was one of the first victims of what we call today "fake news," also known as "propaganda", a set of techniques of mass manipulation being developed at that time and which today have reached near perfection. 

A hundred years ago, on July 24, 1917, Margaretha Gertruida Zelle, known as Mata Hari, was sentenced to death by a military court in Paris on the accusation of being a spy for the Germans. She was said to have passed to them information that caused the death of “maybe fifty thousand French soldiers.”. She was shot a few months later.

Today, looking back at the acts of the trial, we can easily see the absurdity and the inconsistency of the accusations. If there ever was an example of a court of Marsupials, that was it. There just was no way that Mata Hari could have done what she was accused to have done. She was, rather, a scapegoat killed in order to distract the public in a moment when the war was going badly for France. Put simply: she was framed. It was one of the first examples of the deadly effects of propaganda (also known today as "fake news) which, at that time, was just starting to become a common feature of our world.

The trial was the endpoint of a career of dancer and performer that Margaretha Zelle had started when she came back to Europe from Indonesia, at that time called the "Dutch Indies". She had spent just a few years there as the wife of a Dutch Officer but that was sufficient for her to pick up something of the local culture that allowed her to claim that she was Buddhist. She also learned enough of the local language to be able to choose  "Mata Hari" as her stage name, meaning (it seems) "The Light of Dawn". As a dancer, Mata Hari drew a lot of criticism at her times and it is likely that her dances were little more than strip teases with an Oriental flavor. Yet, she became very popular in Europe after she gave her first performance in Paris, in 1905.

As years went by, Mata Hari gradually gave up with stripping naked in public and she was said to have become a high-rank courtesan, seducing the rich and the famous (that, too, may be clouded by propaganda). During the war, she may have tried her hand at being also a secret agent, but it seems more likely that she was simply framed. In a certain way, the French and the German secret services collaborated in sending her to face the firing squad. The German saw her as a "propaganda point" to show how evil the French were in killing an innocent woman, while the French saw the trial as a way to show how tough they were against traitors (and traitoresses).

The trial and the detention of Mata Hari were a showcase of cruelty and intimidation. The last pictures we have of her show us no more the dancer that she used to be, but a woman physically destroyed by months of life in jail. After the execution, Mata Hari received also the ultimate insult, that of being denied a decent burial, of having her dead body dissected on a hospital table and having the pieces thrown away. They say that her mummified head was kept for some years in the museum of anatomy in Paris, before it was, too, thrown away and lost. She was denied the status of human being and considered rather as a sort of giant insect to be disposed of. The transformation of human beings into insects and their subsequent extermination is something that Kafka had already prophetically described in his story “the metamorphosis”.

In later times the anthropologist Roy Rappaport defined as “diabolical lies” those lies that “tamper with the very fabric of reality”. Today, we call those lies with the more neutral term of "fake news", as if they were just a fad that comes and goes. But fake news can kill and one of their victims was Mata Hari. The deadly mix of nationalism and propaganda that killed her was to continue and to explode in later years with the 2nd world war, leading Europe into the largest exterminations of innocent people that history has (so far) recorded. Mata Hari was among the first to be engulfed by this wave of senseless killing. She was killed in cold blood by people who were, most likely, perfectly aware that she was innocent.

It may well be that Mata Hari’s Oriental stance was not just a veneer to ennoble a little her strip teases, but it may also be that she had seriously studied Buddhism and other oriental ways while in the Dutch Indies. Her behavior at her execution, her calm, her evident belief that death was simply a passage, may tell us that her Buddhism was not just a pose but something that she had taken by heart. A hundred years later, we may still learn something from her story.

These notes are based mainly on the book by Rusell Warren Howe, "Mata-Hari. The true story". Editions de l'Archipel, Paris 2007, and on the near contemporary report by Emile Massard "Espionnes À Paris" (Gallimard, 1922), but there is lot of material on her story. Whereas earlier on there was still some discussion on whether she could really have been a spy, today the prevalent opinion is that she wasn't. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)