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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.