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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Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.