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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What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.