Feminine Spycraft

Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 3511, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 3511, Hoover Institution Archives.

The Times of London report that Mata Hari, the notorious World War One double agent, owed her downfall to MI5 rather than to the French secret service comes at a time when the British domestic security service could do with some good news, even if it is one hundred years old. Still reeling from the shock of three terrorist attacks in two months in London and Manchester this year—two of them perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists who were known to the organization—perhaps MI5 can learn something from the superb professionalism of their forebears in 1916.

Mata Hari was the stage name of the Dutch-born exotic dancer and courtesan Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod, whose lubricious body and sheer sex appeal brought her to the attention of French army officers in wartime Paris, but also to that of MI5, which had been founded six years earlier. According to a new book, A Tangled Web by Mary W. Craig, it was MI5 who passed on to France’s spy chief, Georges Ladoux, the information that Hari had been paid 15,000 francs by the German Embassy in Holland to undertake “an important mission for the Germans.” Arrested in her rooms at the Élysée Palace Hotel, the agent who the Germans codenamed H21 was then put on trial and executed.

Although Mata Hari can hardly herself be considered successful, it is a truth universally acknowledged that in the dark arts of espionage the female of our species is certainly the equal, if not the superior, of the male. Both MI5 and MI6 have been led by women in the recent past, with positive results in both cases, although now they’re run by men. The Soviet spy in London Melita Norwood, nicknamed “Stalin’s Granny,” sent secrets to the KGB for a full forty years before she was exposed. Ethel Rosenberg and Anna Chapman were similarly finally caught, but not after they had wrought damage to America, and we will probably never know how many other female Soviet agents worked against us in the Cold War, or are working against us today in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere.

Going further back in history, Charlotte de Sauve spied for Catherine de’ Medici and the transgender Chevalier d’Éon spied for Louis XV of France, and in 1948 the Chinese princess Yoshiko Kawashima was executed for spying for the Japanese.

What seems to have prompted Ladoux to arrest Mata Hari was MI5’s decision to put out an all-ports warning that she should not be allowed to return to the United Kingdom after undertaking her actions on behalf of the enemy. If only all Islamicist fighters returning from Syria were similarly banned from returning to Britain, on pain of immediate deportation, MI5 might have more resources to concentrate on the domestic terror threat we face today.