Saturday, October 28, 2017

Mata Hari: Remembering Her One Hundred Years After The Execution

In Vincennes, on Oct 15th, 2017, where Mata Hari was shot, one hundred years ago. 

The above is a short clip that I made when visiting the park of Vincennes, in Paris, for the centennial of Mata Hari's death. I was exactly (I think) where Mata Hari was executed, and I had my wife, Grazia, recording this short speech of mine. It was an impromptu performance, nothing scripted, so excuse me if it is a little rough. But I thought I could have done it as a small homage to Mata Hari; the best I could do. 

The idea this little talk of mine was to place Mata Hari's death in the context of the great "pulse" of extermination that gripped the world, starting with what we call the "first world war"; really just an episode of the pulse. Overall, some 260 million people are believed to have been killed over some 50 years of madness. 

Of course, Mata Hari was just one of the many victims of this period. There were many before her, and many, many more after her. But I think we can take her execution as somewhat of a starting point of something. 

In 1917, the Great War had raged already for three years, but at it was at that point that things really started to be ugly; uglier than anything ever seen before. It was the moment when a wave of hate-generating propaganda pervaded Europe - it was the starting point of everything that happened afterward. Just to cite an example, on the centennial of the battle of Caporetto, one week later than Mata Hari's death, an Italian General declared, correctly, "it was when we learned to hate our enemies". 

So, it is no coincidence that Mata Hari, a woman who was so clearly both innocent and harmless was killed by the French state. She was killed for no other reason than pure hate. It was part of the beginning of a true tsunami of hate that swamped Europe and most of the world.

The Great War was supposed to be the war that would end all wars. It didn't, just as no other war ever did. We cannot say whether the great pulse of the 20th century was an end of something or the start of something much larger. As always, only the future will tell us about the future.

But we can remember a brave woman, Mata Hari, who died that day at Vincennes, a victim of hate and injustice. Of course, she was not an intellectual, not a person of culture, she probably had no idea of what was happening to her and to the world. But she chose as her stage name that of "the path of light," a path that, one day, we might learn to follow.  

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Mata Hari: Why no pictures of the execution?

The martyrdom of St. Eulalia by John William Waterhouse (1885). It is a shocking painting and, for us, it is debatable (to say the least) that the body of a dead woman could be considered as a form of art. Yet, it is also true that the history of humankind is mostly about killing people, men and women, and we cannot ignore that. In this specific painting, the position of the dead woman seems to have been chosen in order to portray her as an innocent victim and inspire piety in the viewer. That may tell us something about why there are no photos showing the body of Mata Hari after she was executed for espionage in Vincennes, in 1917. She was to be described as a monster, not as a victim.

Pictures of dead people still hanging from the stake were they had been shot were relatively common during the first world war. They were part of the propaganda of the time and were used as ways to show people that justice was being meted out against spies and traitors. You see here an example: Marguerite Francillard, killed in Paris in 1917, accused of espionage for the Germans.

There are many more pictures like this one that can be found on the Web. Julie Wheelwright (the author of "The Fatal Lover")  tells me that she interviewed the son of Pierre Bouchardon, one of the prosecutors of espionage cases during the 1st world war in France and that he had a whole journal where his father kept the photos of executed people.

But, if we have the photo of Marguerite Francillard, why don't we have one for Mata Hari, who was executed for the same reason, in the same place, just a few months later? Actually, there are several pictures that you can find on the web purporting to be real photos of the execution, but all of them are obviously fake. There is one exception, perhaps, for this one:

This photo comes from the archives of Roger Viollet, it has a catalog number, 72342-14, and it is labeled "The execution of Mata Hari on Oct 14th, 1917." Of course, there has to be something wrong with the date, because the execution was on Oct 15th, but that may simply be a typo. Apart from the wrong date, several details of the photo agree with the only description we have written by a person who was present at the execution, Emile Massard in his 1926 book "Espionnes à Paris". The two cars, the mounted dragoons, soldiers armed with rifles, and the trees that could be those of the park of Vincennes, near Paris. Incidentally, the car in the foreground seems to be a Clement-Bayard, probably a 4M model, which was manufactured before the war in France. Its presence fits well with the date of the photo. Only one detail seems to be missing: the hill in front of which Mata Hari stood. Maybe it is made invisible by the fog, or maybe it is outside the boundaries of the photo.

Overall, I would say that it is possible, although by no means certain, that this is an actual photo of the execution of Mata Hari. But, if it is true, it means that there was a photographer there. So, why do we have only one photo? Why a photo that shows nothing interesting? Why didn't the photographer take pictures of Mata Hari's body?

As I argued in a previous post, executions were performed in conditions of near darkness, so that by when there was enough light for taking pictures, the only subject for photography was a dead body hanging from a pole. But, in the case of Mata Hari, there was a difference. She refused to be tied to the stake and when she was shot she collapsed on the ground. Of course, that didn't prevent taking a photo of the body but, perhaps, the fact that there was no need to untie her from the stake made it possible to remove the body more quickly than the usual. That would have left the photographer with nothing to photograph but the bystanders, as we see in the one picture we have.

That's not impossible, but there is a more intriguing possibility. That photos of Mata Hari's body were taken but were not shown or were destroyed. To explain the reasons why, take a look at the image below.

The British nurse Edith Cavell was shot by the Germans in 1915 for having helped British and French soldiers to move through Belgium, a territory occupied by the Germans. Unlike Mata Hari, Edith Cavell had really acted against Germany, as she herself confessed. Yet, the Allies used her as a powerful propaganda tool, describing her as a saintly woman brutally murdered by the savage Germans. Note how, in the image above, she is shown lying on the ground in the same helpless position that Waterhouse chose for St. Eulalia in his painting, above.

The Death of Edith Cavell was used as a very effective propaganda campaign and the Germans understood the damage that they had done to themselves. It may well be that Mata Hari was a casualty of a counter-propaganda effort by the German secret service who maneuvered to frame Mata Hari in such a way to create an innocent victim on the other side. The plan may have been that they could then use Mata Hari as a propaganda tool, just as the allies had used Edith Cavell.

It didn't work. Mata Hari was an entertainer of dubious reputation; there was no way she couldn't be presented as a saintly woman in the same way as Edith Clavell, the nurse, was. Nevertheless, the German plan was dangerous for the French and they had to be very careful in the way they presented the execution of Mata Hari in the press.

Now, imagine that on the day after the execution the pictures of the dead body of Mata Hari are presented to a group of high-ranking French officials. They look at the body lying on the ground and they notice how similar these pictures are to those of Edith Cavell, so widely used to smear the Germans. The officers briefly look at each other and then they shake their heads: no way that these photos should be diffused. They could generate a feeling of sympathy for Mata Hari No, Mata Hari was not to be just killed, she had to be humiliated, destroyed, squashed like an insect. No images of her dead body could be allowed. And here is why we never saw those images and, probably, never will.

All this is, of course, just a series of hypotheses but everything about Mata Hari is shrouded in mystery and legend and this is the best we can do until, perhaps, these hidden images will resurface from wherever they are hidden. But it doesn't matter so much, Mata Hari was a creature of light, just as the stage name she chose for herself, meaning "The path of light" or "the light of dawn." That's the way we like to remember her.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Mata Hari: The Death and The Darkness

The famous painting by Francisco Goya The Third of May 1808. Note the dark sky: it is a detail that Goya caught by being, probably, an eyewitness of this kind of executions. It was a tradition execute people at dawn, in nearly complete darkness. That was also what the sky looked like when Mata Hari was shot in Paris on Oct 15th, 1917 at 6:30 a.m (solar time). 

If you read "The Golden Bough" by Sir James Frazer, you may remember the innumerable descriptions of ritual human sacrifices. One thing that seems to be common in these rituals is that they are carried out in secrecy, and sometimes in darkness. Human sacrifice, it seems, carries blame and feelings of guilt and it is better done in a secluded and dark place.

I had not realized the role of darkness in executions by firing squads until the centennial of the death of Mata Hari, when I tried to be exactly in the place and at the time, in Paris, when she had been shot, one hundred years before. I tried to walk there, in the woods of the Park of Vincennes, but it was impossible for me to get there; it was just too dark. I had to wait for sunrise, about one hour later.  Later on, the famous Goya painting of an execution came to my mind. I went looking for it and, yes, it was the same dark sky that I had seen in Paris at the moment of the day when Mata Hari had been shot.

This discovery opened new perspectives for me. One is that it explains why there are many pictures of people shot by firing squads during the first world war, but in most cases, we see only the dead body. Never, as far as I can say, we see the victim standing, ready to be killed. There is a logic in this: taking pictures in the near darkness at dawn must have been too much for the photographic film of the time. An example is the photo below of Marguerite Francillard, a woman shot in Vincennes in 1917, probably in the same place where Mata Hari was shot.

Assuming that Francillard was shot at dawn, as it was the use, this picture must have been taken at least half an hour after her death. Otherwise, there wouldn't have been enough light. (I know, it is ghastly, and poor Marguerite was probably innocent, but it is history)

Then, knowing that executions were carried out in darkness can help us identify what's real and what's fake among many pretended authentic pictures. For instance, look at the picture below:

In this case, we know that it is not a real picture of the execution, it is taken from a 1931 movie. But if you didn't know that, you might imagine that it shows the real execution of 1917. All the details are right: the firing squad, the hill, the dress that Mata Hari wears. But the light is just not right: this picture was taken at least at mid-morning, not at dawn. The same consideration can rule out many fake photos of the execution of Mata Hari.

But the most interesting thing about the idea of carrying out executions in darkness is darkness itself. These executions were not "justice", they were dark rituals; modern versions of human sacrifices carried out to appease the Gods of war. Today, it seems that these dark Gods are not around anymore. Maybe they are dead but, maybe, they are just sleeping, ready to wake up and restart to ask for more human sacrifices. And many human beings will probably be more than happy to sate the Gods' lust for blood.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Remembering the Execution of Mata Hari, One Century Later

Vincennes, the path of light near where Mata Hari was executed, one hundred years ago.

My idea was to remember the death of Mata Hari by being where she was killed, at the same moment when she was killed, one century later, on October 15th, 2017. It turned out to be not so easy, but let me tell you the story.

First of all, I needed to know where exactly Mata Hari was executed. That was not obvious: all things about Mata Hari's story are always shrouded in a fog of legends and misinformation. And so it was for the execution, where no journalists were allowed, of which there are no pictures.

After some research work, I managed to determine where she was shot, at least with a certain degree of probability. It was in Paris (of course!), at the Bois de Vincennes, in front of the hill that was called "butte du tir" at the time and that today is called "Belvedere." So, a few days before the centennial, I went to Paris and I explored the park of Vincennes by bicycle, finding what seemed to be the likely place of the execution.

At this point, there remained for me to be there at 6:30 in the morning of Sunday, Oct 15th. Actually, Mata Hari was shot at 6:30 solar time, while France in 2017, on the same day, was on legal time (legal time was introduced in France only in 1923). That meant I had to be there when my watch marked 7:30 in the morning. Rather early, but not so much.

Now, there was a problem: Mata Hari was taken to her death by car but, today, that place is in the middle of a public park that cannot be reached by car or by other motor vehicles. So, my idea was to lodge somewhere near the edge of the park of Vincennes and just walk there. I found an airbnb room in Joinville-Le-Pont, south of the Park. Not a short walk, some 40 minutes on foot, but possible. This time, I was accompanied by my wife.

So, at 7 a.m., we were walking inside the Bois de Vincennes and we saw what the problem was: it was dark. Some vague streaks of light were appearing on the horizon, but the park was in near complete darkness. Where streets were lighted, the problem was another one: it was crowded with prostitutes inside their mobile homes or simply standing on the sidewalk. Not that it was dangerous; the places where there are prostitutes working are normally safe: nobody wants the customers harmed. But, still, it was a queer situation and, besides, it made the idea of venturing into the woods in complete darkness even less attractive than it would have been without prostitutes.

At around 7:15, we gave up: too dark to walk in the woods. We turned around and we walked back to Joinville to get a coffee and a croissant in one of the few coffee shops already opened that early on Sunday morning. We waited for the light of dawn to appear and then we walked back into the park at around 9 am. We crossed some of the ladies we had seen earlier on, walking back home after having finished their night shift, but the park had now a much friendlier atmosphere. People were walking, running, and bicycling around.

So, we arrived at the place of the execution at 9:30 am and we celebrated the occasion with some photos and a little movie clip, only me and my wife. We missed the chance of seeing the ghost of Mata Hari appearing to us as a bluish ghost hovering among the trees, but we did our best. If Mata Hari was looking at us from the Elysian Fields, I hope she appreciated our effort. And this is the end of the story.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Centennial of the Execution of Mata Hari

My wife, Grazia, standing in the place where I believe Mata Hari was shot on Oct 15th, 1917, in the Bois de Vincennes, in Paris. This photo was taken yesterday, in the early morning of Oct 15th, 2017, exactly a hundred years after the execution.

As a ceremony, it was a little lonely, as we were only me and my wife, there. Yet, we managed to be there as a small homage to the memory of Mata Hari.

I'll tell you more details in another post, soon.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mata Hari: The Place Where She Was Killed

As I said in a previous post, many things about Mata Hari will remain forever shrouded in mystery. One is the exact place where she was killed. For sure it was in Paris, more specifically in Vincennes, most likely near the "butte de tir", today called the "Belvedere"

So, yesterday I went to Vincennes find the place; of course, the hill in front of which she was shot is round, so how can we know which side is the right one? I toured around the hill, but I think it is rather clear: it is the North side, the one facing the "rue de Saint Hubert." I can imagine that it was the easiest route to follow for the truck carrying the firing squad, as well as for the car carrying Mata Hari, and the mounted dragoons escorting the whole group. All these details are reported by Emile Massard in his description of the execution, he was one of the few, perhaps the only, witness of the execution who described it in writing. As you see in this Google photo, there is a straight road arriving there.

Today, there is absolutely nothing there to remember not only Mata Hari but the many people who were shot there during the Great War. I suppose that it is the way it has to be. So, I just stayed there for a little while. Then I took a little selfie of me there, it was the only thing I could do. Here it is:

Still a few days to the centennial of the execution, on Sunday 15 October. I wonder if there will be anyone there, in the morning, at 6:30, to remember that day!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Ghost of Mata Hari Loves Me!

Look at what I found on a bookstall in Florence! 

Once, people would sell old books, now they give them for free. And if nobody wants them, they throw them away. In this particular case, a book titled "The Dance In front of the Guillotine", with the subtitle "Mata Hari," was left on a table at the entrance of a public garden, together with several other books, all covered with just a flimsy sheet of nylon to protect them from the rain. In practice, they were becoming papier-mache and probably most of them did, except for a few that I saved and I took home with me (maybe for the same reason why you might take home with you a wet kitten found on the street).

This book had the name of "Mata Hari" on the front cover, but I don't know if that was the reason I noted it. In any case, I forgot that it had anything to do with Mata Hari and then, a few days ago, I started reading it without looking at the front cover. I went on for a number of pages, wondering how anyone could write something so devoided of any sense, but yet with some flair. This is typical of these old novels; they are written by professionals who didn't pay much attention to content but knew the tricks to keep the attention of the reader. This one had plenty of sex, blood, duels, intrigue, and plot twists. Guido da Verona was a famous novel hack in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s. Someone described him as "The D'Annunzio of typist and manicure girls." Deservedly, I'd say.

And then, suddenly, at page 146, Mata Hari appears, described as "Comtesse McLeod" (!!). A plot twist that makes no sense, again, and where Mata Hari is described as a bayadere, incongruously accusing the protagonist of having stolen some jewels of her. Then, after a few skirmishes in which she manages to cause the protagonist to strip naked in front of her, she disappears again for the rest of the book. I suppose she will return later on: the novel is in six volumes and this one is just the first of the series. But finding and reading the other five is truly beyond my capabilities.

But never mind the inconsistencies of the plot, the insensate twists, the gratuitous violence; the curious thing is that I was totally unprepared to see the name of Mata Hari appearing as I was reading. And when that happened, it was as if I had seen her ghost suddenly materializing in front of me. It was a little shock that left me almost breathless.

So, maybe the ghost of Mata Hari really loves me since she decided to appear to me in a form, admittedly, a little unusual but still she appeared. After all, the centennial of Mata Hari execution in Paris is approaching, on Oct 15th, Maybe, somewhere in the Elysian fields, her ghost is preparing to travel to the earthly plane to materialize and hover for a while near the Butte de Tir, in the Bois de Vincennes, where she was killed a hundred years ago.