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The Bielefeld Conspiracy is a running gag among German Internet users, especially in the German Usenet. It is generally considered a satirical story rather than a hoax or an urban legend.

Contents

Synopsis

The story goes that the city of Bielefeld (population 330,000) in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia does not actually exist. Rather, its existence is merely propagated by an entity known only as SIE (THEY or THEM), which has conspired with authorities to create the illusion of the city’s existence.

The theory posts three questions:

  1. Do you know anybody from Bielefeld?
  2. Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
  3. Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?

A majority are expected to answer 'no' to all three queries; if they don't, they, or the person they know, are said to be simply part of the conspiracy.

The origins of and reasons for this conspiracy are unknown. Speculated originators jokingly include the CIA, Mossad or aliens who use the Bielefeld University as a disguise for their spaceship.[1][2]

History

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.[3] From there, it spread throughout the German-speaking Internet community and has lost little of its popularity, even after 15 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 only intended 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.[4]

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.

Psychological background

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.
  • Bielefeld is located at the center of an otherwise rural region in the middle of Germany, it has few historical landmarks or buildings due to heavy bombings in World War II, and therefore few obvious tourist attractions and no widely known federal offices or institutions, which gives Bielefeld little to no public exposure. Due to all this, most Germans rarely hear of Bielefeld in the news and can't remember having ever met anyone who speaks the 'Bielefeld dialect' (since there is none that differs significantly from Standard German), and therefore have no clear image of the city in their heads.
  • 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 DortmundHannover(–Berlin). However, the Autobahn passes only through the outskirts of the city and Bielefeld's railway station, although located in the city centre, underwent significant renovation until late 2007, giving it a suspiciously provisional feel, so a lot of people pass through Bielefeld without actually seeing any significant or 'solid' parts of the city.

Official response

The city council of Bielefeld tries hard to generate publicity for Bielefeld and build a nationwide known public image of the city. Even after 15 years however, the mayor's office receives phone calls and e-mails each day which doubt the existence of the city.[4]

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!). However, the statement's publication date — April 1, 1999 (April Fools' Day) — was ill-chosen as it gave conspirationalists yet another piece of material to put into their speculations.

Despite all the efforts, the city still has a solid reputation — for obscurity. This obscurity is at a degree seldom found in a city its size, and had made it the butt of jokes even prior to the rise of this myth.

Other versions

  • 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 Justice Minister Clemente Mastella and former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, it is implied that they might be involved into the conspiracy.
  • On USENET, a similar joke was told about North Dakota in the 1980s.[1] Variations on this have spread throughout the internet, often focusing on other obscure states, such as Nebraska, Idaho and Wyoming. In the case of the last, if the answer to #1 is Dick Cheney, the response is "Of course, he's one of THEM!".
  • 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.”
  • Several modern internet communities enjoy pretending Belgium does not exist. These beliefs stem from a 1995 posting to a Cascadian BBS by Lyle Zapato, available here: [2]
  • In the UK, there are satirical running gags that Matlock, Worksop and Northallerton do not exist.
  • In Israel, there is a similar gag about Petach Tikva.
  • 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.

References

  1. ^ Die Bielefeld-Verschwörung — German page detailing the conspiracy, as originally setup by Achim Held in 1994. (German)
  2. ^ Germany's Latest Conspiracy Theory at the Deutsche Welle website
  3. ^ The first newsgroup posting (Archived version at Google Groups) (German)
  4. ^ a b Transcript of the TV interview with Achim Held in 2004 (German)

Coordinates: 52°01′22″N 8°32′00″E / 52.02278°N 8.5333333°E / 52.02278; 8.5333333

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