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The Bielefeld Conspiracy is a satire of conspiracy theories that originated in 1994 in the German Usenet, which claims that the city of Bielefeld does not actually exist, but is an illusion propagated by various forces. Originally an internet phenomenon, the conspiracy has since been represented in the city's marketing, and referred to by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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 to be deceiving 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 computer science student at the University of Kiel. When a friend of Achim Held met someone from Bielefeld at a student party in 1993 he said "Das gibt's doch gar nicht". Literally that means "That doesn't really exist" but it also is a colloquial expression of surprise and disbelief, e.g. about a coincidence or something rare. From there, it spread throughout the German-speaking Internet community, and has lost little of its popularity, even after 21 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 [bBulletin board system|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.
- 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 state, 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.
In November 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Bielefeld Conspiracy in public when talking about a town hall meeting she had had in Bielefeld, adding: "…if it exists at all." and "I had the impression that I was there."
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 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! (Bielefeld does exist!) on April Fools' Day. In allusion to the conspiracy the 800th anniversary of Bielefeld was held under the motto Das gibt's doch gar nicht (colloquially "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 premiered in Bielefeld on June 2, 2010.
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- 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.
- Several modern Internet communities enjoy pretending Belgium does not exist. These beliefs stem from a 1995 posting to a Cascadian BBS by Lyle Zapato.
- 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".
- In Turkey, a similar belief about Bilecik is popular among Internet users, popularized by users of Ekşi Sözlük.
- In the United States, the state of Wyoming is the subject of a similar joke as few people live in Wyoming and most people outside of neighboring states do not personally know anyone from Wyoming.
- In Sweden, a mockumentary claimed that the 1958 FIFA World Cup did not actually take place.
- The Danish satirical news program "De Uaktuelle Nyheder" did a story on cheating in the Tour de France which first claimed that the race was filmed in the same studio (at Area 51) as the Moon landing and then escalated to denying the existence of France. Presented as evidence were old maps of Europe without France and prominent people stating that French is actually gibberish. It was even argued that all Frenchmen are in fact actors, and that map manufacturers are behind the whole thing. The first question of the Bielefeld conspiracy was also used.
- The federal state of Acre is the Bielefeld equivalent in Brazil.
- In England, it is said when referring to the train station on the line between Alton and Guildford, that "no-one gets on and no one gets off at North Warnborough", a small village in the Surrey Hills near Guildford.
- In Israel, there is a joke that the city Petah Tikva does not exist, and that the buildings are made of Cardboard. There is another joke claiming that the city of Ness Ziona is actually leftover construction materials from Rishon LeZion.
- In Norway, there is an emerging conspiracy theory concerning the village Kyrksæterøra, Sør-Trøndelag. The claim being that the existence of the village was fabricated back at the end of the Second World War. Recently the village was used by the state again in relation to the relocation of the infamous Mullah Krekar. The Krekar case itself being a hoax is also debatable.
- In Tom Stoppard's play Travesties, a character impersonating Romanian artist Tristan Tzara, caught claiming to be from Bulgaria by mistake, explains "It is the same place." Another character responds that she had "always suspected it."
- von Lüpke, Marc. "'Ich habe die Bielefeld-Verschwörung unterschätzt'" ['I underestimated the Bielefeld Conspiracy']. Der Spiegel (in German). Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- Article: "Auch Merkel zweifelt an Existenz Bielefelds (German), Die Welt, November 27, 2012 (retrieved May 07, 2013).
- "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)
- 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
- Stoppard, Tom (1975). Travesties : [a play] (1st Evergreen ed. ed.). New York, NY: Grove Weidenfeld. ISBN 0802150896.