The city that doesn’t exist, and when Angela Merkel made a joke – the story of Bielefeld

Ich hätte irgendwas hier schreiben gekonnt und Sie würden keine Idee haben was ich gemeintet könnte. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Do you know anybody from Bielefeld? Have you ever been to Bielefeld? Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?

If the answers to those three questions were all “no” – as is extraordinarily likely – I’ll spare you a Google.

Bielefeld is a city in north-western Germany, with a population of about 323,000. It’s in the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia, and is the 18th largest city in Germany, with a large university and hospital, a historic castle, and a fairly typically Germanic-looking church.

Or at least that’s what they want you to think. The evil, conniving, manipulating, Machiavellian elites of the Illuminati.

Because the truth – the shocking truth, the red-pill MSM-defying truth – is that Bielefeld doesn’t exist.

"Hello", said the castle. "I am not real". Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It is in fact a mirage cooked up by those who would wish to keep us – the people – shackled up in our chains. An elaborate exercise in mass psychological and evidential fabrication and manipulation that serves as an experiment into the limits of control that the mighty can exert over the masses.

You’re Googling it now, aren’t you?

Those maps? Doctored. Photographs?  Videos? CGI.

I mean even Google's in on this come on. Image: Google Maps

And if you’re one of the few people who believes they’ve been to Bielefeld – congratulations. You’ve been selected to be subjected to some very nifty hypnosis, or a ground-breaking psychosomatic drug administered discreetly in gas form. Forget Hillary’s emails, this – THIS – is the exposé of the century.

Phew. Ok. I give up. That was exhausting. All of this is, obviously, a load of nonsense. 

This is actual Bielefeld. For real. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

At this point I was going to include a terrible photo of me in Bielefeld in 2010, but despite extensive image research of my ten days there I realise not a single photo was taken in anywhere recognisably Biefeld-ish. Suspicious. 

But it Biele-feld like I was there

Anyway. In 1994, some university students joked on an online forum that: “Bielefeld gibt es nicht”. The slight problem – that phrase means both “there’s nothing there”, implying the city might be an empty, barren, or pointless place, and “it doesn’t exist” – as in, it literally is not real.

And so the line stuck, and spread; perhaps the first piece of fake news.

Despite the internet still being in its infancy pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, and pre-meme, the idea raced around the web, and by 1999 Bielefeld was driven to put out a press release with the headline: “Bielefeld gibt es doch” – or, “Bielefeld is real”. Only problem with that was the date of publication – 1 April.

Since then, it’s become something of a national joke. There’s no direct British equivalent, which makes its prevalence hard to explain, but it’s a bit like how saying “Slough” to anyone who listens to Radios 3 and 4 will earn the response “Come, friendly bombs”, while other breeds of radio listeners will think of Ricky Gervais and The Office.

To be fair if this was your university you'd do anything to make it not exist. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The joke and its origin story comes in many different forms. There’s a version whereby a sinister secretive organisation known only by the name “SIE” – meaning “they” – works behind the scenes to perpetuate the myth of Bielefeld; another maintains that the German government is controlled by secret society which orchestrates the gambit.

The Illuminati theory comes with all kinds of strands and attachments. Bielefeld is around 257.9 square kilometres, and the sum of those individual digits is 23. The area telephone code is 05711000 – add those digits and you get 23. The city’s administration is at 23 Niederwall. The population is 323,000 – or at least, was in 2002 – which has the number 23 slap bang in the middle. The number 23 is supposedly a particularly unlucky number for the Illuminati. If you’re into that sort of thing. In a perverse and really try-hard way, it all adds up.

A North-Rhine-West-phalia of imagination 

And then some of it’s rather confusingly tied up with the psychological research of Henri Tajfel, a Polish immigrant to France turned French army soldier turned POW in Nazi Germany turned British psychology professor at Oxford University. He studied the roots of prejudice, and tried to find out what could trigger one group of people to turn against another; the minimum stimulus or reason required to create an us versus them psychological framework. He called it the minimal group paradigm, and his verdict? Pretty much anything.

Die Matrix in action. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

From in-jokes to cultural references to ethnic nationalism, humans quickly divide the world into people like us’, and the rest – and the Bielefeld conspiracy (or Bielefeld Verschwörung as it’s known in German) is like a light-hearted national experiment into that phenomenon.

But aside from whatever pidgin psychology might be at play here, the joke kept on spreading. In 2010, a group of students at Bielefeld University made a film, financed by the university and local private sponsors, called Die Bielefeld Verschwörung, and published the novel of the filmas a book.

In 2014, the city’s mayor Pit Clausen optimistically took up the mantle of the conspiracy and tried to use it in tourist marketing for the 800th anniversary of Bielefeld’s foundation. 

He said:

“Bielefeld es gibt’s doch gar nicht sein ein Super-Opener für ein Gespräch dabei ist mir die Möglichkeit gibt darauf zu beschreiben wie schön, wie großartig unsere Stadt ist, daß was hier loß ist und natürlich ein bisschen die Werbetrommel für die Stadt so gehören und so für wenn diesen Opener noch nicht der Wirt doch da müssten wir mehr finden.”

For those who don’t speak German:

“‘Bielefeld doesn’t exist’ is a great opener for a conversation. It gives me the opportunity to talk about how beautiful, how wonderful our city is; about what’s going on here and naturally beat the drum for our city so people can here, and if this opener didn’t exist we’d have to come up with one ourselves.”

Or something like that.

Don't Merkel me laugh

Perhaps most bizarrely of all, Angela Merkel once made a joke. Honestly, she did.

Bundersanzlerin des Bantersrepublik Deutschland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Making reference to a Bürgersprach – the equivalent of a US town hall meeting – she had attended in Bielefeld, she said: “...so es denn existiert” – “if it even exists”. “Ich hatte den Eindruck, ich war da”, she said – “I had the impression I was there. I hope I can go back”; “Ich hoffe, ich darf wieder hinfahren”.


So there it is. A snippet of fake news so incredible it made Angela Merkel do a funny about a city that doesn’t exist.

Shame, really. I hear the metro’s good. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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