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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 the 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, 1993, 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", a phrase comparable to "I don't believe it", signifying disbelief or surprise. However, its literal translation is "That doesn't exist."; thus he (accidentally) implied that he refuses to believe that someone came from Bielefeld. From there, it spread throughout the German-speaking Internet community, and has lost little of its popularity, even after 23 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.
The Bielefeld Conspiracy remains one of the most popular internet jokes originating in Germany.
In November 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Bielefeld Conspiracy in public when talking about a town hall meeting she had attended 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 nationally 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 "That doesn't exist at all").
In 2009, film students at 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's staff and actors were students or university employees; a few professionals, such as the actress Julia Kahl and the cameraman Alexander Böke, also joined the project. The screenplay was written by Thomas Walden. The movie was 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. Wyoming has for decades been the least-populous state, and most people outside Wyoming have never met anyone from Wyoming. However, several major tourist attractions such as Yellowstone National Park are located in Wyoming. Wyoming furthermore is one of only two states among the lower 48 without any Amtrak service.
- Several modern Internet communities enjoy pretending Belgium and Finland do not exist. These beliefs stem, respectively, from a 1995 posting to a Cascadian BBS by Lyle Zapato, and from a 2015 post by the Reddit user Raregan.
- 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. Similarly, the city of Bayburt is referred as unreal or hard to find by many internet users on Facebook and Twitter.
- 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 state of Acre is the Bielefeld equivalent in Brazil.
- 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 of Kyrksæterøra in 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 "[i]t is the same place". Another character responds that she had "always suspected it".
- In India, the town of Jhumri Talaiya is assumed by many not to exist. A disproportionately large number of song requests to a popular state run radio channel, Vividh Bharati, used to come from that town, which led many to believe the town was simply made up by Vividh Bharati and the Indian government.
- In Romania, the internet community refers to Sălaj County as non-existent, thus being considered a void in space and time.
- Bielefeld Conspiracy
- 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.). New York, NY: Grove Weidenfeld. ISBN 0802150896.
- Sanghamitra Mazumdar (2008-06-21). "Where are you going this winter? Jhumri Telaiya?". Indian Express. Retrieved 2012-01-09.
Jhumri Telaiya is too quaint a name to be real—at least that’s what people who tuned into Vividh Bharati thought.