The Bielefeld Conspiracy is a running gag among German and American Internet users, especially in the German Usenet. It is generally considered a satirical story rather than a hoax or an urban legend.
The story goes that the city of Bielefeld (population of 323,076 as of 2011) in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia does not actually exist. Rather, its existence is merely propagated by an entity known only as THEM (SIE in German), which has conspired with authorities to create the illusion of the city’s existence.
The theory posits three questions:
- Do you know anybody from Bielefeld?
- Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
- Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?
A majority are expected to answer 'no' to all three queries. Anybody claiming knowledge is said to be part of the conspiracy or being deceived themselves.
The origins of and reasons for this conspiracy are not a part of the 'canonical' theory. Speculated originators jokingly include the CIA, Mossad or aliens who use Bielefeld University as a disguise for their spaceship.
The conspiracy theory was first made public in a posting to the newsgroup
de.talk.bizarre on May 16, 1994, by Achim Held, a student of computer science at the University of Kiel. From there, it spread throughout the German-speaking Internet community and has lost little of its popularity, even after 20 years.
In a television interview conducted for the 10th anniversary of the newsgroup posting, Held stated that this myth definitely originated from his Usenet posting which was intended only as a joke. According to Held, the idea for the conspiracy theory formed in his mind at a student party while speaking to an avid reader of New Age magazines.
There are a number of conflicting theories about the reasons behind the joke's gain in popularity, the most popular being a flame war between Usenet admins and the Bielefeld based Z-Netz BBS about text encodings.
Some reasons for the popularity and wide spread of this myth may be the following:
- This theory can be understood as an allusion to the popularity of conspiracy theories.
- It parodies the complexity and implausibility of many conspiracy theories, together with their tendency to dismiss evidence to the contrary as having been created by the conspirators.
- Despite being a large city, Bielefeld receives relatively little attention:
- Heavy bombing during World War II destroyed its historic centre and left it with few obvious tourist attractions.
- It is not the site of any well-known federal offices or institutions, conferences or cultural events.
- No well-known companies or newspapers (apart from Dr. Oetker) are based in Bielefeld that could give it public exposure.
- The city's traditional main trade, linen manufacture, has declined and is today a minimal part of the city's economy. It is not the subject of large amounts of attention in German business reporting.
- The city is not associated with any distinctive accent.
- Bielefeld lies on the highly important route between the Ruhrgebiet and Berlin, with one of the busiest Autobahn routes in Germany (the A2) and the ICE railway line Dortmund–Hannover(–Berlin) both passing through. However, the Autobahn passes only through the outskirts of the city and Bielefeld's main railway station, although located in the city centre, retained a rather provincial feel until rebuilding in 2006. Many people pass through Bielefeld without actually seeing any significant parts of the city.
- Although Bielefeld is located in the most populous German Land, it is located "in the middle of nowhere", in the centre of an agricultural region. This has also been mocked by the proverb "Am Arsch der Welt in Bielefeld" (At the end/arse of the world in Bielefeld.)
- Alluded to with the popular fare-well "Und wenn schon nicht in dieser Welt, so seh'n wir uns in Bielefeld" ("And if not in this world, we'll see each other in Bielefeld")
- Combined, these feature add to the amusement value of the theory, as people discovering the theory realise that they have no clear image of the city in their heads.
The Bielefeld Conspiracy is still one of the most popular internet jokes that originated from Germany.
The city council of Bielefeld tries hard to generate publicity for Bielefeld and build a nationwide known public image of the city. Even after 17 years, however, the mayor's office receives phone calls and e-mails each day which claim to doubt the existence of the city.
In 1999, five years after the myth started to spread, the city council released a press statement titled Bielefeld gibt es doch! (There really is a Bielefeld!). However, the statement's publication date – April 1, 1999 (April Fools' Day) – was ill-chosen as it unwittingly played right into the humorous conspiracy. In allusion to the conspiracy the 800th anniversary of Bielefeld was held under the motto Das gibt's doch gar nicht (colloquial "This can't be true", but literally "This does not actually exist").
In 2009, film students of the Bielefeld University started a project to develop a feature film based on the Bielefeld Conspiracy. The project was financed by the university and local sponsors. Most of the project staff and actors were students or university employees, in addition a few professionals joined the project like the actress Julia Kahl and the cameraman Alexander Böke. The screenplay was written by Thomas Walden. The movie finally premiered in Bielefeld on June 2, 2010.
- In Brazil, the federal state of Acre is the subject of an equivalent running gag, to the extent of using the three questions of the Bielefeld Conspiracy to prove its nonexistence. There is, however, less emphasis on the conspiratory part.
- In Italy, the region of Molise has the same role as Bielefeld. Since Molise has been the ground for several political men, such as former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, it is implied that they might be involved in the conspiracy.
- On USENET, a similar joke was told about North Dakota in the 1980s. Variations on this have spread throughout the Internet, often focusing on other rural states, such as Nebraska, Idaho and Wyoming. In the case of the last, if the answer to question No. 1 is Dick Cheney, the response is "Of course, he's one of THEM!". Another example is found in a short sketch in an episode of the cartoon serial "Garfield And Friends", where Garfield appeared in front of a map of the USA with an empty space where Wyoming normally exists. Garfield claimed that Wyoming did not in fact exist, and that the name of the state was an old Italian word for "no state here".
- In his satirical almanac, The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman claims that the city of Chicago is a myth, and debunks supposedly pervasive "dubious fables of Chicago".
- Peter Bichsel's tale "Amerika gibt es nicht" [There is no such place as America] calls into question the existence of an entire continent.
- Several modern Internet communities enjoy pretending Belgium does not exist. These beliefs stem from a 1995 posting to a Cascadian BBS by Lyle Zapato.
- In the UK, there are satirical running gags that Matlock, Worksop, Northallerton or even the whole of Wales do not exist.
- In Israel, there is a similar gag about Petah Tikva.
- Also in Israel, many people doubt the existence of Afula.
- In 90's Chile, the TV show "Plaza Italia"'s host always said at the beginning of the show that "Combarbalá does not exist" - even when people from Combarbalá (either missing the point or keeping up with the joke) sent him letters and packages from there to prove they did exist.
- The town of Teruel in Spain is the capital of the province of the same name, but its low population and mountainous location makes it relatively obscure within Spain. A campaign group with the slogan Teruel existe ("Teruel exists") was founded in 1999 to press for greater recognition and investment in the town and the province (the campaign was successful, but Teruel remains the only provincial capital in Spain without a direct railway link to the capital, Madrid). This, however, only served to spur joking comments stating Teruel no existe, i.e. "Teruel does not exist".
- On The Simpsons, when Lisa is frightened of ghosts, Bart assures her that ghosts do not exist, "like the Loch Ness monster! Or North Dakota!"
- Some Russian Internet users claim that there is nothing outside Moscow - that everything outside of the MCAD (Moscow Circle Road) is a nuclear desert crossed by gas and oil pipelines, guarded by bears and KGB agents. The KGB also built decorations along the railroads, Potemkin-village-style, to fake the existence of life on Russian territory, and any Internet users claiming to be from outside of Moscow are also undercover agents.
- In Turkey, a similar belief about Bilecik is popular among Internet users, popularized by users of Ekşi Sözlük.
- In Sweden, a mockumentary claimed that the 1958 World Football Championships did not actually take place.
- "Amtliche Bevölkerungszahlen" (in German). Landesbetrieb Information und Technik NRW. 2011-06-30. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
- Die Bielefeld-Verschwörung – German page detailing the conspiracy, as originally setup by Achim Held in 1994. (German)
- Germany's Latest Conspiracy Theory at the Deutsche Welle website
- The first newsgroup posting (Archived version at Google Groups) (German)
- Transcript of the TV interview with Achim Held in 2004 (German)
- Article: "Auch Merkel zweifelt an Existenz Bielefelds (German), Die Welt, November 27, 2012 (retrieved May 07, 2013).
- von Lüpke, Marc. "'Ich habe die Bielefeld-Verschwörung unterschätzt'" ['I underestimated the Bielefeld Conspiracy']. Der Spiegel (in German). Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- Bielefake-Satire – Wir sehen uns nur in dieser Welt ... at Spiegel Online (2010-6-4) (German)
- Die Bielefeld Verschwörung at the Internet Movie Database
- Il Molise non esiste