The Weirdly Successful Conspiracy Theory About an Entire German Town

“To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “Ideals and Doubts”

In A Nutshell

In the 1990s, a group of college students decided to poke fun at Usenet conspiracy theorists by starting their own rumors. They said that the German city of Bielefeld didn’t exist, and as people came forward to say it really did exist, the whole thing spiraled into a set of rumors and theories about why people’s minds were being manipulated into believing that the city was real. It was rumored to be the site of an extraterrestrial compound, a secret tunnel to Atlantis, and even the site of a sleeping dragon and a sect of knights. The obviously fake story—and its satirical spirit—has had some staying power, though, with Chancellor Angela Merkel even expressing her doubts the city exists.

The Whole Bushel

Settled around the year 1000 with the town officially founded in 1214, Bielefeld saw the consecration of Franciscan monasteries, the fallout from the Reformation, and spent more than a century and a half as a popular spa town and destination resort starting in 1666. Today, it’s home to around 330,000 people.

Bielefeld, Germany, clearly has a history.

But the conspiracy theories say it doesn’t even exist.

They started in the early 1990s, when the Internet was going mainstream. Usenet was still a thing, and people were starting to figure out how quickly information could spread. One of the first main groups to set up shop there were the conspiracy theorists, and there were already a people taking to Usenet to claim that the government was monitoring them through their televisions, or any one of a million claims we’re all familiar with.

A group of college students from the University of Kiel found the whole thing a bit silly, so they decided to start their own conspiracy theory to see how far they could take it.

They started a rumor and a website about the nonexistence of the city of Bielefeld. They first suggested it wasn’t real, asking questions like, “Have you ever been to Bielefeld?” and “Do you know anyone from Bielefeld?” to prove their point that there were a suspicious number of people who weren’t from the city, had never been there, or didn’t know anyone from there.

Article Continued Below

When people started coming forward to say they were, in fact, from Bielefeld (or knew someone from there), it was conspiracy theory gold.

How could others be certain these people were from Bielefeld? Were they sure they knew someone from there? Or were they being manipulated into thinking they were familiar with the town? Because that’s exactly what would happen when there was a cover-up on that scale.

Note, too, the students said, the vacant, thoughtful expressions of the people claiming to be from Bielefeld. Had something been done to their minds, their memories?

Photographs of Bielefeld could have been taken anywhere, and they proved nothing. The sudden appearance of the Arminia Bielefeld football team was fishy. They were clearly actors hired to give the existence of the city a little more credibility.

The theory goes on to say that the existence of the city is a cover for what’s really there: the landing site of an extraterrestrial creature who came to Earth to impart some sort of wisdom to us all.

Others say it could be the site of a top-secret research lab, the opening of a tunnel that runs through the center of the Earth (and through Atlantis), or the resting place of a slumbering dragon and a sect of knights. (They were supposed to wake on December 24, 2011, of course.)

The idea was to create a massive satire of Internet nuts, but it’s had a weird amount of staying power. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel chimed in, expressing her doubts as to the existence of poor Bielefeld.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Library of Congress
Modern Notion: The Bielefeld Conspiracy: How an Internet Prank Deleted a Town
Bielefeld: History
DW: Germany’s Latest Conspiracy Theory

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!