Victim or vamp: Mata Hari’s role in allied propaganda

The Great War, unlike previous conflicts, was the first total war in which whole nations were engaged not just professional armies. This required propaganda to mobilise hatred against the enemy and to convince the population of the justness of the cause. The outbreak of the Great War saw an outpouring of such propaganda from Germany justifying the actions of the Kaiser and his government. The amount and content of this propaganda initially caught the British by surprise. Its perceived level of effectiveness was such that by the beginning of September 1914, the British cabinet had agreed for the need to establish a similar unit to produce British propaganda. This propaganda unit was established under C. F. G. Masterman, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Entirely staffed by upper class, university trained men, except for the secretarial staff, the unit entered into the ‘game’ of propaganda with the late Victorian/Edwardian ideals of femininity firmly entrenched. Even those women, known to have stepped outside the bounds of feminine behaviour, (as designated by upper class society) the suffragettes, had, for the most part, at the outbreak of the war suspended their activities and adopted traditional female supporting roles e.g. in nursing. This then was the mindset and background of those who would subsequently use Mata Hari in their propaganda. Her gender and overt sexuality then combined with this mindset to render her an extremely useful propaganda tool whose trope of the ‘sexy, dangerous female spy’ holds true to this day.

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Wartime propaganda frequently highlighted crimes against women. Male violence against women was the mark of barbarity. Women were the victims of war and men were urged to fight to protect mothers and sweethearts. Women were seen as good and pure and passive. Most of the early Allied propaganda focused on the German invasion of Belgium with atrocities against Belgian nuns a noticeable feature. Belgium was a neutral country, passive and non-combatant, and as such could be thought of as ‘female’ as opposed to the ‘male’ combatant countries of Great Britain and Germany. Nuns, by their very nature, were truthful and good and non-sexual and so the purist examples of females. A Belgian nun was, therefore, the most innocent victim that could exist. Women’s innate goodness and passivity were seen as a counterpoint to male aggression but one that, paradoxically, was worth fighting for. To defend such a victim was noble. For the enemy, Germany, to attack such a victim put them outside the pale and thus become a legitimate target of hatred and revulsion.

When Mata Hari arrived on the scene as a ‘spy’ in 1916 she had an already established reputation as anything but a good or passive woman. A so-called naked dancer, a well known courtesan with multiple lovers, she was an overtly sexual woman that threatened and challenged the image of the female victim. Mata Hari was the ‘non victim’, the vamp. She was the polar opposite of the Belgian nun. Here was a woman who was the citizen of a neutral country, who had been living safely in the Netherlands, but had deliberately chosen to spy for the enemy. She had rejected the female norm of passivity. This was a woman who had used sex to undertaken her spying. She had rejected the purist form of female sexuality: celibacy. This was a woman who was known to be a liar. The fantasies of being a Javanese princess, or the daughter of a Hindu priestess that had been part of the fun in 1910 had by 1916 been exposed as lies. And lies mattered.
In 1928 Arthur Ponsonby, a Liberal MP and known pacifist, published Falsehood in War Time, a work that exposed the base lies of war propaganda. Ponsonby proclaimed that

‘There must have been more deliberate lying in the world from 1914 to 1918 than in any other period of the world’s history’. Moreover, Ponsonby noted that ‘Atrocity lies were the most popular of all, especially in this country … (where) (s)lander of the enemy is esteemed a patriotic duty’.

In 1916, the British had increased their use of propaganda, concentrating their attention on Russia, Italy and especially France. Work was undertaken officially at Wellington House under the control of Masterman but also by the News Department of the Foreign Office and the Neutral Press Committee and, with less control, sections of the press and community organisations that spontaneously disseminated propaganda material. By 1917, it was felt that the work could be undertaken more productively if it was controlled by one department and so the War Cabinet established a new department to be housed at the Foreign Office, the Department of Information. Strong links were forged, or in most cases, re-forged, between the Department on Information and the ‘press gang’, of Lord Beaverbrook, the editor of the Daily Express, Lord Northclifle, owner and editor of The Times, and Lord Rothermere, owner of The Daily Telegraph. All upper class men who, for the most part, had attended school or university with those in the Department of Information and who shared the same values.

With these newspapermen working alongside the Department of Information, propaganda took on a new face. Newspaper articles appeared extolling the virtues of nurses and mother who knitted socks for the ‘boys at the front’. Letters from sweethearts would be published telling of their pride in their men folks but also in their own lives sitting at home passively waiting, remaining true, staying pure. Women’s role in the ongoing conflict was reinforced as that of the good, honest, pure women; the potential victim for whom the men were fighting. This polarity of good and evil, or black and white served several purposes. The defined female role gave a certainty that comforted in war. A woman who conformed to the role was ‘doing her bit’. It reinforced why the men had gone to war. It ‘proved’ how barbaric the enemy was because they threatened that role.

By 1917, war fatigue had started to set in. The horror of the slaughter, the overwhelming numbers of casualties could no longer be denied. The old story of ‘bad’ Germans was wearing thin and needed a new impetus. And it was at that moment that Mata Hari was arrested by the French. The Allies, notably Britain, were continuing to peddle atrocity propaganda with stories of good, honest, pure women being attacked. The capture of the bad, dishonest, sexually promiscuous Mata Hari was a propaganda godsend. The Allies were presented with an opportunity to reinforce all of the social norms they were fighting for, defend their own military tactics, put pressure of the US to join the war while continuing to attack the enemy as barbaric.

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The lessons of Mata Hari’s sexuality helped reinforce the ‘passive, good woman’ motif. Good women might be victims of war but would always be defended by decent men. Bad women, such as Mata Hari, were vamps and as such would be caught and punished. Of course in that punishment Mata Hari then became a victim. But the central message held. Women who stepped out of the defined limits of female behaviour were bad and would be punished. This basic propaganda message contained multiple layers. For the men at the front it reassured them that ‘their’ women were good and pure and were waiting for them at home. It also ‘proved’ the necessity of the war; to punish the Germans for attacking good, pure women. For women the message was a warning. Bad behaviour has consequences. Stay good and pure and you will be defended. Act outwith social norms and you will be caught and punished. No overt relationships were made between Mata Hari and the Suffragettes but the links between ‘bad’ behaviour and the inevitability of male justice could not have gone unnoticed, especially by those Suffragettes who had seen the inside of prison. Even though the Suffragettes had suspended direct action at the outbreak of the war, the outrage felt by most upper class men at their activities should not be underestimated. The opportunity to use Mata Hari to deliver a warning, however covert was, therefore, eagerly grasped. But a further layer of meaning could also be discerned. If Mata Hari had helped the enemy, had she helped them violate other women? Did highly sexual women betray ‘good womankind’? If so they had to be shunned. In this way the social norms around feminine behaviour could be self imposed, with female peer pressure exerting a corrective steer on wayward women such as Suffragettes.

Secondly there is Mata Haris’ role in defending military tactics. 1916 had been a gruelling year for all of the Allies. Major battles had been lost or won at immense cost. The public were becoming war weary. Several propaganda tactics were tried but the questions continue to arise. Were the losses because our soldiers were not brave? Or were our generals incompetent? Neither scenario could be countenanced. A two pronged propaganda campaign was initiated. Firstly, failure had to be blamed on spies and saboteurs. Our ‘brave lads’ were not to blame, our general were working all hours. And secondly, propaganda that portrayed German atrocities against women were intensified. Images of the violation of women, real and symbolic, took on a heightened meaning. The propaganda used was highly sexualised with images of women hanged ‘stark naked and mutilated’, and claims that German soldiers regularly cut off the breasts of their victims. By 1917, the propaganda had created a ‘spy mania’ where anyone suspected of being a spy was in danger of mob violence, while anti-German feeling reached fever pitch.
The capture of Mata Hari was, therefore, lauded as a great triumph. This was a woman who had danced naked and had worked to help Germans to mutilate other ‘decent’ women. (In fact Mata Hari seldom performed naked and never exposed her breasts.) On the surface, the capture of Mata Hari the spy was a straightforward victory. However, her sexuality also allowed propaganda to deflect any criticism of the men involved in her case.

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‘Wicked’ Mata Hari had used her sexual wiles against decent men who were used to decent women and as such had no defence against such an unnatural sexual monster. They could not comprehend her behaviour, because it was so outwith the social norms of feminine behaviour and as a result the men who might have told her secrets were to be allowed some degree of licence.
Her abnormal behaviour further explained the time taken to capture such a woman. Decent men were unused to women such as Mata Hari and how they acted. The time between the Allies first suspicions about her, in December 1915, and her arrest, in 1917, were due to decent men’s ignorance of how such a creature acted and indeed how to trap her.

All of the blame was loaded onto Mata Hari the vamp. She was sexually voracious, the men were helpless. However, while this ‘story’ played well in the press it did not bear too close an examination. What sort of man was unable to detect she was a spy and had, albeit unwittingly, given her information? If Mata Hari was the voracious sexual predator who pursued men, did that render the men as passive victims? It is noticeable that several of the men involved with Mata Hari always stated, after her capture, that they had known from the beginning she was an enemy agent. They had only played along in order to capture her.

Finally there is the use of Mata Hari in the campaign to persuade America to join the war. The American historian, H. C. Peterson studied the effects of British propaganda on American and observed that,

‘The most important reason for the American action in 1917 … was… the attitude of mind in this country — the product of British propaganda. People under the influence of the propaganda came to look upon the struggle of 1914–1918 as a simple conflict between the forces of good and evil… it created a willingness to sacrifice American youth in an attempt to punish the hated nation.’

It is noticeable that after years of the US deliberately staying out of the European conflict, the mindset changed in 1917, the year of Mata Hari’s arrest. The war had seen several ‘crisis’ moments when the US government, sensing the mood of the people, could have entered the war, e.g. the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. However, it must be remembered that at the outbreak of the Great War the US had large numbers of recent European immigrants. All of whom had emigrated for a better life in America, i.e. they had left a worse life in Europe. There was little genuine feeling to help the ‘mother countries’ of Europe. That changed in 1917, for a variety of reasons, one of which was the continued and increasing portrayal of the sexual violation of women by German soldiers. The arrest of Mata Hari, which very quickly made the international press, was a real sensation. The Allies very quickly realised the value of her fame and used it. The internationally known and sexually alluring woman as a spy, fascinated and repelled in equal measure. The implication that her actions had aided the violation of other women, as the story could be spun, became a step too far for church going Americans and, it could be argued, in combination with other factors, helped swing the nation’s mood towards active participation in the war. The US had already severed diplomatic relations with Germany in the February so the political landscape was ripe for a mood change. On the 6th April 1917, the USA declared war on Germany.

The desire amongst the British establishment to demonise Mata Hari as the ‘greatest spy that ever was’ may have arisen from the understandable need to explain the huge cost in human lives of the Great War. The capture of the sexually promiscuous Mata Hari presented them with the opportunity to reinforce social norms, defend their own tactics and put pressure on the US to join the war. However, while that demonisation may have been an effective propaganda tool at the time it reinforced the sterile labelling of women as either vamp or victim. Interestingly, it also took Mata Hari the vamp and made her into a victim of male upper class expectations with regards to female behaviour.

Vamp or victim she remains the epitome of the ‘sexy, dangerous female spy’ to this day.


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