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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Trials of Mata Hari and Alfred Dreyfus - Parallel Injustice

The Trials of Mata Hari and Alfred Dreyfus – Michelle Moran, in Mata Hari’s Last Dance, includes a section on the arrest, investigation, trial and execution of Mata Hari for espionage in 1917. As I read about the prosecution, I think of it more as a persecution, I thought of the trial of Alfred Dreyfus which took place a generation earlier in 1894. I found parallels between their cases.

Dreyfus was convicted on flimsy accusations and fabricated evidence related to French military documents being supplied to Germany.

Moran sets out how Mata Hari was charged with espionage primarily based on intercepted messages between Major Albert Kalle of the German Army and Secret Service and his superiors in Germany. She has an agent number of H21 and is said to have provided “significant” information on French military operations.

Mata Hari had taken him to her bed in Madrid and thought he was providing her with important German military information which she sent to her superior, Georges Ladoux, in France.

During questioning Mata Hari states that money she received from the German government was compensation of personal property seized by German soldiers. The French Secret Service believes it was payment for spying on France.

The alleged information she has provided is kept secret during the trial preventing her from effectively defending herself against the allegations.
In the Dreyfus case the prosecution also produced secret evidence. A dossier was provided to the judges that was never revealed to the defence.

Both trials are sad examples of French military justice. Dreyfus and Mata Hari were scapegoats. Show trials were designed and run to create the illusion of guilt to protect French Army “honour” in the Dreyfus case and deflect attention from a faltering war effort in 1917. 

It is little surprise that each of the accused was a marginalized member of French society. Dreyfus was a Jew at a time of significant anti-Semitism in France. Mata Hari was a wanton woman living off the gifts of lovers. 

Both the trials of Dreyfus and Mata Hari were closed rather than open proceedings denying scrutiny by the press and public. 

In both cases the guilty were protected by the State. In the 1890’s the Army, for no good reason, exonerated the actual spy, Count Esterhazy. Mata Hari had no access to military maneuvers. Her skills were in seduction and pillow talk. She openly spoke of the numerous officers, French and German, she had bedded. Had there been any information for her to pass on to Germany it would have come from French officers. In the hypocrisy of the time Mata Hari, the alleged messenger, is shot while the sources of any information in the French military are never prosecuted. 

The effort to sacrifice Dreyfus failed but succeeded with Mata Hari. 

Dreyfus was rescued from a sentence of life in prison by the efforts of men such as Emile Zola, author of J’Accuse, and Georges Picquart, a French officer. Picquart, a genuine man of honour, found and revealed crucial evidence of the cover-up. Had the Dreyfus trial occurred during a war I believe he would have been executed before the campaign to free him could have succeeded. 

There was neither a Zola nor a Picquart to come forward for Mata Hari. In Moran’s book there are protests but they had no time to build as with Dreyfus. Protesters had but a short time in Mata Hari's case. There were 17 days between the dismissal of her appeal and her execution. Had Mata Hari’s case been in peacetime I expect she would have been sentenced to imprisonment. 

Had there been time there would have been much to find to build a further appeal for Mata Hari. Russell Warren Howe in a 1986 article in the Smithsonian states that he, through personal contacts with the French Defence Ministry, gained access to much of the secret dossier used against Mata Hari.

After assessing the evidence he states: 

After reviewing the files, this writer has come to his own conclusions: Mata Hari made only one effort at espionage and this took place in Madrid--for the French. She spent three afternoons with a German military officer who fed her inaccurate information and to whom she passed along gossip items from newspapers. She did receive money from the Germans but there is no evidence that she gave them any information in return. None of her actions provided evidence for eight counts of espionage. She was deliberately framed by the Germans, who used a cipher that they knew the French had already broken. All the German spymasters' memoirs and the official histories of German espionage in World War I seem to be in agreement: Mata Hari never was "one of ours.' 

Howe expanded upon the article in a book, Mata Hari – The True Story. 

Next year will be the 100th year since her trial and execution. Documents sealed for a century are due to be released. The world can expect to see what was really gathered as evidence against Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, best known as Mata Hari.

Had they met in real life I believe Mata Hari, drawn to officers, would have sought to seduce Dreyfus, and I believe he, a man devoted to his wife, would have refused her advances.

 Moran, Michelle - (2016) - Mata Hari's Last Dance - Appearance and Historical Errors


  1. What a fascinating - and troubling - parallel you've made here, Bill. Among other things, I think it shows what happens when it's decided that someone will be a scapegoat. You make such strong points, too, about what might have happened had Mata Hari been male, or had a champion - a Zola, for instance. All of this shows, at least to me, how important it is to understand history. If we don't, it has a way of repeating itself...

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. There is no justice when guilt is pre-determined. I wonder what Zola would have done had he been alive when Mata Hari was being charged and tried and convicted by the French government. I like to think he would have protested.

  2. Who would have thought of combining these two cases? An attorney, I'm thinking.

    I don't know about Mata Hari, but I do know a bit about the Dreyfus case, some of it from a fantastic movie, "The Life of Emile Zola." Paul Muni plays Zola.

    The part about the injustice of Dreyfus' case plays a large part in the film. And it does portray the anti-Semitism involved in his frame-up.

    There is a much-discussed book about the Dreyfus case you might want to read: An Office and a Spy by Robert Harris.

    I want to read it but the description of an anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfus mob upset me, as one set of grandparents fled anti-Semitic pogroms in 1907 in Russia.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I have read An Officer and a Spy. It is an excellent book. It would be hard reading for you. I had not thought about the parallels between the cases until reading the two works of fiction.