Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mata Hari: An Excerpt from "The Dance Never Ends"

This post is an excerpt from the novel that I am writing that should be titled "The Dance Never Ends". The protagonist is an American veteran of the Great War with the plain-vanilla name of Robert Smith who moved to Paris in the 1920s, hoping to follow the flamboyant career of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. There, he becomes obsessed with the story of Mata Hari. He tries hard to forget, to dedicate himself to something more productive, but eventually he engages in an in-depth search. 

I remember those days of feverish activity. Reading and taking notes at the National Library that I then brought back home, depositing them on my desk. My old typewriter started looking like a transatlantic liner navigating in a white sea of sheets of paper. And, like the Titanic, it looked like it would sink in that sea and never resurface again. But that was not to happen. I would need that typewriter, sooner or later.

I took time; first days, then weeks. I started with the card on Mata Hari that they had in one of those majestic cabinets, at the library. That told me her birth date, on 7 August 1876, and the date of her death, 15 October 1917. She was 41 when she was shot. The card also said that her real name was Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod (née Zelle) and that she was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. Of course, she was not a Javanese princess; that is, unless you suppose that Javanese princesses can be born in small villages in the Netherlands. She also had married someone named McLeod; not exactly the name of an Oriental prince.

From then on, it was all about news reported in newspapers. I would have needed a couple of research assistants for a thorough search, but that was out of the question considering the state of my finances. So, I started with the 1st of January 1900 – just as a round number - and on I went, one issue after the other of “Le Petit Parisien,” the main paper published in Paris at that time.

For a while, I found no traces of a pretended Oriental dancer named Mata Hari but, in 1905, she appeared as if magically summoned from some otherworldly realm. In the issue of March 13 of Le Petit Parisien, I found a detailed report of her performance in Paris, apparently her first performance ever. It had been at the Musée Guimet, a private museum of Oriental art. Other newspapers published reports of that performance. In all of them, she was referred to as “Lady MacLeod,” although they also mentioned her stage name, Mata Hari. Other papers reported the story a few days later. So, at page 165 of the No. 1 of the 1905 edition of the “Revue francaise de la paix” they said that her dances “hinduistes” or “bramaniques,” and the way she danced was said to be “souple et serpentesque.

From what I could read, it seems that what she did was not much more than stripping naked at the sound of exotic music. But she seemed to have been hugely successful at that. I found that, later on, she even performed at the “Palace au Trocadero” a place in Paris where anyone who was supposed to be an artist would perform.

Some newspapers had printed pictures of her, surrounded by a group of girls dressed in black, a sort of tunic that left their shoulders free. Mata Hari wore a jeweled costume. A classy woman she was: a tall, hourglass figure, a certain air of distance.

I kept going; she must have continued with her performances. As I moved onward, the news about her became less frequent. That didn't mean she wasn't performing; of course. She might have been somewhere else in Europe or, more likely, there was a certain logic in her having slowed down. After all, she was 29 when she started stripping naked in public. As years passed, it must have become, well, let's say a little awkward for her to keep doing that. And then, the war came, in 1914. The French had different things to worry about than an aging dancer who pretended to be a Javanese princess.

But the interest in Mata Hari picked up again in 1917. In June 1917, all the French newspapers were reporting on her arrest in Paris with the charge of espionage. Actually, they reported that she had been arrested much earlier, in February, but the whole affair had been kept secret. In my notes, I marked that she had been arrested for “espionage, attempted espionage, complicity in espionage, and intelligence with the enemy.” Quite a list, if it was true.

I didn't find much about the trial, it was only reported that it had been a military tribunal judging Mata Hari. According to the press, the sentence that declared her guilty was passed on July 24. She was shot on October 15, 1917. The papers covered the execution the day after, mostly on their first pages. They were not nice to her.

The Petit Parisien wrote that “the spy, Margaretha Gertrude Zelle, who had profited of the hospitality given to her by our country, to betray it for several years.” Le Matin announced the execution of the “Fake Hindu dancer, traitor.” Another daily said that “the salaried spy has paid yesterday her debt to society.” The way most papers presented it, Mata Hari seemed to be a giant cockroach that had been squashed.

Only “L’Heure,” was not so nasty and I copied almost all of their piece in my notes It said that Mata Hari “….died showing a courage never seen before, with a smile on her lips, as when she was triumphant on the scenes”. They said that Mata Hari had refused to be tied at the stake and to be blindfolded. Just before being shot, she had said “merci monsieurs,” (“thank you, gentlemen”) to the soldiers in front of her and she had sent them a kiss. An incredible courage; and that from a woman.  Another detail that I found in one of these papers was that one of the members of the squad had fainted before firing. They had to take him away on a stretcher.

I remember that I would shake my head as I was finding these details. You may ask me who am I to judge, sure, but the whole story seemed to me completely fake. You probably know the concept of “kangaroo court” and one thing I can tell you: I was in the trenches during the war and I think that the Germans had no need of Mata Hari or anyone else to know how to kill us. They knew that very well by themselves. Maybe I was wrong, maybe she had been as evil as she was said to be. Maybe she could somehow guide the German artillery, or their planes, or their snipers. But, come on! The whole story made no sense.

Then, I found a curious report describing Mata Hari’s funeral. Her body was placed in a coffin; the coffin was carried to a cemetery, and then lowered into an empty tomb. But it had stayed there just for a few minutes, the time for a priest to say a short service for her. Then it had been pulled up again to be taken to the faculty of medicine “for medical experiments”.

Medical experiments? That could only mean an autopsy on a surgery table. I even noted the names of the professors who had performed those “experiments” on her: monsieurs Branca and Prenant. What idea was that? If they wanted to have fun with dead bodies, in 1917 they had plenty of bodies to enjoy themselves with, fresh from the frontline. Why did they need Mata Hari’s body? Did they need an autopsy to know what she had died of? Did they want to count the bullets in her body? Did they think they could discover something special in her? Maybe they thought she had something inside like an organ of evil, just as we all have a liver, a stomach, guts, and all the rest. Maybe some people really have an organ of evil. Maybe removing it from people, just like an appendix, surgeons could cure the world of evil.

But it rather was this story that seemed to be truly evil. Those professors and their students, those who had dissected Mata Hari’s body, maybe they found it more interesting than usual. Maybe they had fun in stripping her naked. Maybe they posed her on the dissection table. Maybe they were eating sandwiches and telling dirty jokes to each other while they were cutting her to pieces. I could imagine that they could have saved some pieces of her body as if they were relics of some saint of old: a bone, a curl of hair, a whole finger, that kind of things.

One report said that Mata Hari’s head had been embalmed and conserved in the museum of anatomy in Paris. Can you imagine something weirder than this? If I had written that in a novel, you would say that I am sick in my head. But, again, the whole story made no sense. It looked like a bad novel, written by a poor writer who had run out of ideas and tries to keep the reader interested by telling of grisly details about spattered blood.

The final straw came from a book that I had found in one of those bookstalls they had along the Seine river. A book titled “Espionnes à Paris” (“women spies in Paris”) written by someone named Emile Massard, the commander of the Paris garrison during the war. So, this Massard surely knew a lot about Mata Hari and he said he was reporting “the truth” about Mata Hari. The Truth? Who had said “what’s truth?”

Let me give you an example of what Massard thought truth was. He reports that, at the trial, Mata Hari answered to a series of questions about staying at a hotel near the front line, in 1916. And here is how Massard tells the story, reporting how one of the judges interrogated Mata Hari:

When you were at the front line, did you know about the preparations for the offensive of 1916?

I knew that from friends, officers, that something was in preparation. But even if I had wanted, I wouldn’t have been able to inform the Germans, and I didn’t inform them because I couldn’t.

Yet, you were always in contact with Amsterdam through the Dutch legation where they received your letters thinking you were writing to your daughter.

I was writing, I confess, but I wasn’t sending any information.

We have proof of the opposite. We know at least to whom you were writing.

At this point, Massard writes, “At this statement, the dancer paled. She understood that someone had ‘looked’ in the mailbox of the legation, and she didn’t insist.”

Now, I don’t know what you may think of that, but around my place, back home, there used to be a term that describes this kind of things. It is what bulls make from their rear end. I know, it is not proper to write this kind of words in a book, but you understand what I mean.

What was Mr. Massard trying to tell us here? Was he asking us to believe that Mata Hari was completely stupid? And also that the president of the court was stupid? And not only that, that the whole war council was composed of stupid people; actually that everyone else in the world is stupid, including the poor clods who would sort out some of their francs for his book (to be exact, the cover price was 6 francs and 75 centimes). Would Massard want us to believe that the only way for the Germans to discover that a major French offensive was in preparation was to have Mata Hari telling them that? Would she figure that just by looking out of the window of her hotel? Then, of course, what we saw buzzing over our trenches were not German airplanes, just giant mosquitoes painted with the German iron cross on their wings.

And then Massard want us to believe that Mata Hari sent the information by means of a letter traveling by the regular French postal service. And that the letter is addressed to the Dutch legation in Paris, and from there it is supposed to go to Mata Hari’s daughter in Holland, and from there to somebody in Germany, and finally, to arrive to the German headquarters before the offensive starts, actually in time for the Germans to do something about it. Sure, maybe the letter flew by balloon from Amsterdam over the front lines and then miraculously landed right on the desk of General Luddendorf, the commander in chief of the German Army. Won’t you believe in that? Sure.

And didn’t Mata Hari imagine that somebody could open and read her letters? Surely she couldn’t have imagined such a thing, so that she wrote her reports for the Germans fully in clear, although in Dutch. Of course, she must have thought that she was the only person in France who could read Dutch. Come on, even the poor infantrymen of the front line, and I had been one of them, knew that our letters to home were read; all of them. And none of us was so stupid to write in our letters things that would have brought us straight in front of a military court.

So, you see? it was on this basis that they had concluded that Mata Hari “had maybe 50.000 of our children killed,” as Massard wrote. As I said, stuff coming out of a bull’s derrière.

Not convinced yet? Let me give you another example. At page 63 of that yellow book, Massard says that Mata Hari “danced” in prison. He also says that she had told to the prison commander that she needed to take a bath everyday, and that this daily bath had been granted to her. Sure, that wartime military prison really was a high-class hotel. So, why not tell us also about a milk bath, as they say Cleopatra used to have? And would you believe that Massard tells us just that? Yes, he says that Mata Hari had the pretense of asking for a milk bath, and that gives him the excuse for a little show of moral indignation. “Can you believe,” he says, “that this Mata Hari had asked for a milk bath in a moment when there was no milk for our little children”?

Sure, can you believe that?

I could go on, but I guess this is enough. The only thing that I would add is that, in Massard’s book, there were not just lies and obscure claims that Mata Hari had done the most horrible things. Massard lost no opportunity to insult her. Not the least offense was to call her always “Mata”, just as if that was her first name. Now, I may not know Javanese, of course, but it was Massard himself who said at the beginning of his book that “Mata Hari” meant “the Light of Dawn”. No way for him not to understand that calling her just “Mata” was, simply, an insult.

And insults did he pour on her. That she was vain, greedy, rapacious, stupid, haughty and more; besides being, of course, a prostitute. Massard found also the time to criticize her written French. Now, from what I knew, I understood that Mata Hari could speak and write at least four languages: Dutch, German, English, and French. I think she could speak also other languages, probably some Spanish and some Italian. Then, having lived in the Dutch Indies, she must have picked up Javanese, enough at least to take up the nickname of “Light of Dawn”, Mata Hari. And this pompous colonel who, most likely, couldn’t speak anything but French, had the nerve of criticizing her for the mistakes that she made in writing her letters in French.

That’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy. You go some place, you take pains to learn the local language and the locals, instead of praising you for your effort, criticize you for the mistakes you make, for your foreign accent, and for not being able to catch their jokes right away. Yes, that drives me crazy, also because it was what was happening to me all the time in France. . . Sorry, I go mad every time I think about that. But let me not digress.

I had in my hands a book of insults and lies. But it was not just that. There were, there may have been, grains of truth in this onrush of lies and insults. At least, Massard had been present at the execution. When he said that Mata Hari had “behaved well” at the execution, he was describing something he had seen with his very eyes. So, it was true what I had read in some newspapers; that she had refused to be tied at the stake and to be blindfolded. It was true that she had smiled just before being shot; that she had sent a last kiss to those who were surrounding her. That much I could believe; after all, Massard had been present at the executution. And that was something that led even Massard to comment with something that was at least a half praise. It was, he said, a “Grande Dernière”, the last performance of an expert comedian. Not that, according to Massard, it was anything so special, though. He said that the whole set up of a military execution is very formal and very impressive, so that in most cases people “behave well” when they are about to be shot.

I am not so sure about that. If that were the case, why would the prisoner always be blindfolded and tied to the stake? But, after all, what do I know about firing squads and executions? In war, I had been shot at many times, all right, but it had been nothing like people in high uniform lining up to aim their guns at me all together. Just people trying to kill me the best as they could and, thank God, failing at that. Better said, succeeding only in part, considering what had happened to my leg. But let me not digress again.

At least one thing that could have been the ultimate insult to Mata Hari was not in Massard’s book. No pictures of the body of the dead Mata Hari. Not that Massard was beyond showing us a picture of a dead woman. He did exactly that with another espionne, a female spy shot at Vincennes a few months before Mata Hari: Marguerite Francillard her name. I won’t go into details of what Massard claimed this Miss Francillard had done, let’s just say that she deserved only a couple of pages of vague accusations. It seems that her mistake had been to be in love with a German man who lived in Switzerland. Then she may or may not have carried letters for him around, but did it matter, really?

Poor Marguerite; they had framed her so well. Think that Massard himself said that she was, in the end, a “good girl.” When she was already tied to the stake, those ugly idiots even convinced her to scream, “I ask to be forgiven by God and by France,” as if she had to submit to a couple of married divinities. Yes, like if Santa Claus had married the Tooth Fairy. Those who had planned the whole thing must have been grinning under their mustaches when they heard her accusing herself in that way. Then, Massard shows us a picture of Marguerite Francillard, dead, hanging from the pole by an arm still bound to it. Poor girl, what a way to end – insulted, killed, and then shown to everybody in death as if she were an old piece of cloth left hanging to dry. So, we can see her after she was, using Massard’s term foudroyée, “hit by lightning”. Yes, in Massard’s book spies are not just shot, they are hit by something like a divine blast; something that they fully deserve as blasphemers of the ultimate deity: France.

These people, they had this idea, this tremendous presumption; these people thought they were Gods to dispense divine punishment. They thought they had a divine right to send lightning from the sky to smite these women. And Mata Hari had the grace and the class of reserving for this gang of louts one of her best performances. Maybe her best ever. But they didn't care about her career, her dances, all the languages she could speak, her Javanese, her French, her German, her Dutch. Everything blasted away, vaporized, gone, foudroyée. And Mata Hari was gone forever, without return.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Tale

From "Cassandra's Legacy"

This is a true story that took place a few years ago. There is no mention of "Christmas" in it, but I think it can be seen as appropriate to the Christmas atmosphere. A time in which we tell stories and we rethink about what we are and what we do. 

I have volunteered as a teacher to support disadvantaged children and I am here, helping boys and girls in junior high school who have fallen behind in their studies. Most of them are from poor families of immigrants.

Today, I have in front of me a boy of around 12, Ahmed. He told me that his family came from Algeria and his father is a cook in a restaurant. Tall, dark-haired, with a light brown skin, he speaks perfect Italian. A nice boy, friendly and smiling.

I am supposed to help Ahmed with biology. So, we open the textbook on the page he has to study. We read the text together, "eukaryotes have a nucleus and organelles, prokaryotes do not."

I look at him, he looks at me. Clearly, this sentence makes no sense to him. And I can understand why: the authors of the book, really, have no idea of what they are talking about. Prokaryotes and eukaryotes are described as curious little critters in the same vein as one could describe the animals of a zoo: "giraffes have long necks, zebras do not."

It is not the first time in my life that I feel like the last centurion of the Empire, defending a world that is ceasing to exist. I am supposed to defend science, but what's happened to the science I know? It seems to have faded away with the legions of a disappearing empire. There is nothing in this biology book that describes the intricacy of the molecular mechanisms of life, nothing of the immense timespan of billions of years that led to life moving from bacteria and archaea to eukarya, and then to multicellular organisms. Nothing about the infinite complexity of ecosystems. Nothing about the amazing scientific journey that led us to understand how life evolved and changed. Nothing that could interest a 12-year old boy.

This book is totally flat: plenty of illustrations but as exciting as a painting supplies catalog. I looked at several of these books. They are all the same: slick commercial books designed to convince teachers to push their pupils to buy them.

Ahmed repeats the sentence as it is written, "eukaryotes have a nucleus and organelles, prokaryotes do not." He could as well be telling me that the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo.

I nod at him, he smiles at me. I have in mind to ask him, "do you understand what that means?" But I don't.

I ask him, "do you like studying biology?" He says "Yes". Then he realizes that I understand that he spoke out of courtesy toward me. He adds, "But I prefer to study other things."

"What do you like to study?"

"The Holy Koran," he says. He seems to understand my perplexity, so he adds, "See, my sister and I are studying the Holy Koran. My sister is older than me. She can already recite some suras by heart."

The feeling of being the last centurion defending the empire is becoming even stronger. I see myself as standing on one of the few surviving ramparts of the ruined walls of the capital city. Behind me, the city is almost deserted; the temples and the buildings half ruined, infested with weed and mice, the emperors forever gone.

I say, "is it interesting to study the Koran?"

He looks at me, perplexed. For him, the answer is so obvious that he can't even understand my question. But he does his best. He says, "My father says that reading the Koran makes you a better person."

That's not an answer, it is an invitation. In no time, I have been turned from teacher to student. I try to answer the best I can, "I studied a little Arabic."

"It is good that you did that."

"It is not very easy."

He smiles. "You can learn." He says.

I nod, smiling at him. "I try to do my best," I say. We go back to the biology textbook.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Butterfly Effect in History: How a Dinner in Antioch, 50 AD, Changed the World

One of the most fascinating things about history is how small events can change the world. It is, after all, typical of complex systems to be sensitive to small perturbations: it is the story of the butterfly that starts a hurricane. And, these perturbations may come from single persons who take a specific, often ill-fated, decision. Do you remember when a man named George W. Bush became obsessed with the idea of invading Iraq?

One of those small events that changed history may have been a dinner that took place in Antioch perhaps on 50 AD at the home of Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul the Apostle. It is an event described in detail in Paul's "Letter to the Galatians," normally supposed to be one of the earliest still-extant documents related to the origin of Christianity.

Let's go back to that remote year. In 50 AD, Yeshua Bar Yusef, later to be known as "Jesus Christ" had been executed by the Romans for sedition some twenty years before. But his memory of prophet and healer still lingered. Jesus's brother, Yaʻaqov (James) was the leader of a Jerusalem based group - or sect - of Jewish people who followed Jesus' teaching. The sect had also started proselytizing among the Goyim (non-jews, or Gentiles).

One of the members of the Jesus sect was an unusual Jew who was also a Roman citizen, something very rare at that time. He was Saul of Tarsus, who also used the romanized name of Paulus, today known as "Paul". He tells us that he had been persecuting the followers of Jesus but that a mystical experience or a vision ("hit by lightning on his way to Damascus") made him change his mind and become a follower of Jesus. He visited Shim'on bar Yona (Peter) and received a sort of initiation from him. Afterward, he was charged with preaching the Gospel ("the good news") to the Gentiles.

It seems that Paul was successful at proselytizing, so much that a split within the sect developed. Jews and Gentiles had different traditions, different ideas, different languages. They were also geographically separated, with the Jews mostly located in Palestine, whereas it seems that Paul operated mainly in Asia Minor, but also in more remote regions of the Empire. Then, there was the question of Jewish dietary habits and, probably more important, that of circumcision. It may be that most of the Jewish members of the group wanted that the male Gentiles who joined to be circumcised. That was, obviously, a tough requirement and considerable obstacle for the expansion of the sect.

The split came to a head during that fated dinner that Paul tells us about in his letter to the Galatians. Apparently, Peter had come to Antioch - perhaps sent by James -  to tell Paul that his male followers should have been all circumcised. Later on, some unidentified "agents from James" came to tell Paul the same thing, appearing at a dinner where Paul and Peter were present. That precipitated a strong verbal reaction from Paul who insulted his former mentor, Peter, and proclaimed that he had received the Gospel directly from God and that salvation came to followers by following Christ as a divine person, not the Judaic law which imposed circumcision.

And there we go: the origin of the split between Christianity and Judaism that affected so much the history of the world may have originated at a dinner table in Antioch, a little less than 2000 years ago.

Is it possible? Maybe, and maybe not. We cannot be completely sure that the letter to the Galatians we read today is exactly what Paul wrote, although most scholars think it is. But this is just one of the different possible interpretations of the text of the letter to the Galatians. Finally, even though Paul was the person who catalyzed the break, it would have probably occurred anyway because the reasons for Gentile Christians and Jews to separate were many and deep and there were surely other occasions for that to happen.

Yet, if it is true that Christianity originated with a quarrel at a dinner in Antioch, then we have a truly impressive case of "the "butterfly effect" that led Christianity to expand until, today, it counts more than 2 billion adherents! It is one of those fascinating flashes of how history is made, that elementary flavour of history that Jorge Luis Borges found in the words of a Saxon King reported by the Icelandic Scholar Saxo Grammaticus.


This post originates from the book by Eric Zuesse "Christ's Ventriloquists". Not a very good book in many respects, mainly because it is overlong and terribly repetitive. More than 350 pages discussing a couple of pages of a single letter by Paul are really too much. Then the book is focussed on demonstrating that Paul was a liar and a traitor, projecting on him evil intentions which he may or may not have had. Finally, its bibliography is very limited, the author doesn't seem to consider, or even admit the existence of interpretations different than his. 

But it also a good book in the attempt it makes to shed light on an episode that may have had enormous consequences on the whole human civilization. More than all, its saving grace is that it is a book. One of those books that you read in one afternoon sitting on a comfortable chair, flipping the pages one by one, because you understand that the author cares about what he writes and does his best effort to write it. Reading a paper book is an experience that we are losing nowadays, but we shouldn't let it happen. As Walt Whitman wrote in "So Long" "This is no book. Who touches this, touches a man". And this is true also of "Christ's Ventriloquists" with all its defects and shortcomings, it touches something human. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When did women fight in battle for the first time?

Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple) by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830. This woman is commonly referred to as "Marianne" and is considered a symbol of the French fighting for freedom. 

Apart from fictional tales about the Amazons and other legendary warrioresses (as Camilla of the Aeneid), there are no reliable traces in the European history of classical times of women having fought in battle. In time, things changed and, in our age, the more than 100,000 women who fought in the Red Army during the 2nd world war were a crucial factor in the Soviet victory.

But when did women start fighting in Europe? There are scattered reports here and there of women fighting, say, with Napoleon's army and even earlier than that: think of Joan D'Arc, who fought for the French against the English in the early 15th century.

How far back can go in history and find fighting women? I think that the earliest report is from Paul the Deacon who describes a battle between the Wandals (later known as the Vandals) and the Winnili (later known as the Longobards). Here is an excerpt from the "Historia Langobardorum" (book I):
At this point, the men of old tell a silly story that the Wandals coming to Godan (Wotan) besought him for victory over the Winnili and that he answered that he would give the victory to those whom he saw first at sunrise; that then Gambara went to Frea (Freja) wife of Godan and asked for victory for the Winnili, and that Frea gave her counsel that the women of the Winnili should take down their hair and arrange it upon the face like a beard, and that in the early morning they should be present with their husbands and in like manner station themselves to be seen by Godan from the quarter in which he had been wont to look through his window toward the east. And so it was done. And when Godan saw them at sunrise he said: "Who are these long-beards?" And then Frea induced him to give the victory to those to whom he had given the name.[1] And thus Godan gave the victory to the Winnili. These things are worthy of laughter and are to be held of no account.[2] For victory is due, not to the power of men, but it is rather furnished from heaven.
It may be wholly fictional, but if a battle between the Longobards and the Vandals really took place, it must have happened before the Longobards moved into Italy, so not later than the 6th century AD, possibly much earlier. And if it there really was such a battle, this report can be understood as meaning that the Longobard women didn't just show up on the battlefield, they fought! And from what we know of the Longobard and their assertive queens (think of Theodolinda), it looks plausible. It looks also consistent with some archaeological evidence of female warriors buried in Northern Europe in early Middle Ages.

So Paul the Deacon gives us perhaps the first recorded (albeit fictionalized) case of women fighting in a battle in Europe. They have come a long way from those times!

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.