In the northeastern German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, there’s a city known as Bielefeld. Or at least, there’s supposed to be a city there called Bielefeld. According to the Bielefeld Conspiracy, Bielefeld isn’t what it appears to be.
Bielefeld dates back to 1214 when Count Hermann IV of Ravensberg founded the original town. The town enjoyed a thriving textile trade, with a particular focus on linen, the city is now a player in the food industry; it also features a castle built between 1240 and 1250, several medieval churches, a botanical garden, and a university—although it’s frequently described as “nondescript.” As of 2018, Bielefeld’s population was approximately 333,786.
But how exactly did Bielefeld come to be at the center of a wide-reaching conspiracy theory? And what even is the Bielefeld Conspiracy in the first place?
Buckle up, folks; you’re in for quite the ride.
The Bielefeld Conspiracy, Defined
The Bielefeld Conspiracy itself is simple: It states that the city of Bielefeld doesn’t actually exist. It’s predicated on the belief that nobody knows anyone who has ever been to or is from Bielefeld—ergo, the city is just an illusion. According to the conspiracy theory, anything that might typically be pointed to as evidence of Bielefeld’s existence (the train station, football stadium, Autobahn route, telephone numbers, etc.) merely prop up the illusion. The train station and football stadium are both on the outskirts of Bielefeld, meaning that any parts of the city visible from them are merely facades and set pieces. Roadwork on the Autobahn diverts visitors away from Bielefeld itself, dropping them off instead in locations that are only said to be Bielefeld. Telephone numbers and postcodes for Bielefeld are simply evidence that both the telecommunications and postal systems are part of the conspiracy.
The conspiracy theory notes that you can determine whether or not an individual is a part of (or affected by) the conspiracy by asking them three questions:
- Do you know anybody from Bielefeld?
- Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
- Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?
Most are expected to answer “no” to all three questions and may, therefore, be considered unaffected by the conspiracy. Believers think those who answer “yes” to one or more of these questions to have been deceived by the conspiracy or even involved in propagating it themselves.
But the theory is less definite about precisely who maintains the illusion, or to what end. The shadowy entity usually credited with propagating the illusion is simply referred to as “SIE” (or “THEM” in English), but nothing more is known about this entity. It’s not even clear whether THEY are a governmental body or an outside organization that holds ridiculous amounts of power over the governments of Germany. The goal of the illusion seems to be to hide whatever is actually meant to be in Bielefeld from the general public, although, again, it’s not clear exactly why it might be necessary to do so.
There are, of course, tons of ideas floating around about it, though none of them have ever been proven. Some believers suspect that it has something to do with concealing the supposed truth about the moon landing (that it didn’t happen, of course). Others posit that the CIA spirited John F. Kennedy away to Bielefeld after faking his death. Some think that “Bielefeld” is a sort of spaceport, providing a landing spot for extraterrestrial ships and space crafts. Still others believe that the “city” hides an entrance to an ancient tunnel connecting America to Australia (and both to the mythical city of Atlantis).
The Truth and History of the Conspiracy
Here’s the thing, though: The Bielefeld Conspiracy doesn’t actually exist, either. It is, and always has been, a joke—one that pokes fun both at conspiracy theories in general and, lovingly, at the seemingly unremarkable city of Bielefeld itself. In some ways, we could even consider it an early meme, although it predates the internet as we know it today.
The Bielefeld Conspiracy was first proposed in a Usenet newsgroup post written in 1994 by Achim Held, a computer scientist who at the time was a student at the University of Kiel in northern Germany (also known as Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, or Christian-Albrecht University of Kiel). Dated May 15 of that year, the post, which was published to the de.talk.bizarre newsgroup, positioned the “conspiracy” as dangerous information he and his friends had uncovered. Held noted that he would likely disappear shortly after publishing his post and cautioned readers to delete the post from their home directory immediately, lest THEY come knocking.
But according to an interview with Held published in Der Spiegel in 2014, the post was always meant to be taken as satire. In Held’s own words:
“I actually wanted to make fun of absurd conspiracy theories on the internet.”
The idea germinated at a university party Held had attended in 1993, where, in response to discovering that one of the other students attending was originally from Bielefeld, one of his friends joked, “There is no such thing as Bielefeld.” It became a running gag between the group of friends, compounded by an experience they had later that Fall while driving from Kiel to Essen. “At the time, there was a large construction site around Bielefeld, so all the exits towards Bielefeld were crossed out with an orange ribbon,” Held said. “We joked: ‘We really are on the trail of a conspiracy—Bielefeld doesn’t exist!'”
Even the language and details of the post mimicked those commonly found in conspiracy theories. Of his inclusion of the city of Atlantis, the moon landing, and the assassination of JFK, Held said to Der Spiegel:
“I just tried to list the usual suspects. In any conspiracy theory…there are either extraterrestrials or some secret service. Either those that you know, or even those that are so secret that you don’t know them.”
He pointed to the Illuminati and the Knights Templar as “particularly popular” organizations.
Held had no idea his joke would have such staying power, but it spread quickly and thoroughly. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, it’s become a cultural touchstone both for the city itself and for Germany at large.
A Lasting Legacy
These days, Bielefeld has embraced the Bielefeld Conspiracy as part of its identity. The conspiracy even has begun appearing in marketing material intended to draw tourism to the city. For example, the Bielefeld tourism website begins its “City Portrait” by noting that:
“For years, conspiracy theorists have been spreading the virtual rumor that Bielefeld is only a figment of the imagination in keeping with the motto, ‘Bielefeld? There’s no such place!’ That’s far from being true, as you will see.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel also notably joked at a public appearance in 2012 about a town hall she had attended in Bielefeld— “if it exists,” she said. “I had the impression I was there,” she added. “I hope I can go there again.”
In 2019—the year of the Bielefeld Conspiracy’s 25th anniversary—the city even offered a €1m prize to anyone who could prove that Bielefeld did not exist as a playful marketing stunt. The prize remains unclaimed, although some 2,000 conspiracy theorists participated in the competition, according to Bielefeld Marketing GmbH’s website.
As for Achim Held? He has since actually been to Bielefeld. In 2010, students at Bielefeld University teamed up to create a feature film about the conspiracy, with the finished movie premiering in the city on June 2 that year. Held attended the premiere as a special guest, noting to Der Spiegel in 2014 that he was “received very kindly” and that he can “no longer deny the existence of the city.”
Then again, maybe that’s just evidence that THEY got to him.
You never know.