As It Happens

This German city is offering $1.5M to anyone who can prove it doesn't exist

The German city of Bielefeld is marking the 25th anniversary of a widespread conspiracy theory that there is no such thing as the German city of Bielefeld.

Bielefeld marks 25th anniversary of widespread conspiracy theory that there is no such thing as Bielefeld

The German city of Bielefeld has long been the subject of a conspiracy theory that it doesn't really exist. (Joel Wuestehube/Shutterstock)
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Transcript

The German city of Bielefeld is marking the 25th anniversary of the conspiracy theory that there is no such thing as the German city of Bielefeld.

It's a widespread rumour that dates back to the very early stages of the internet, and it's one residents have decided to embrace for better or for worse.

The local government is offering €1 million ($1.5 million Cdn) to anyone who can prove the municipality's non-existence. 

Jens Franzke, press officer for the city, spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the contest. Here is part of their conversation.

Where did all this start? Where did the conspiracy theory originate?

The guy behind the whole idea is called Achim Held. He's an engineer from the northern part of Germany, and 25 years ago he met someone from Bielefeld [at] a party.

Nobody in the party had ever been to Bielefeld. Someone said, "Oh, maybe this whole town does not exist."

And this just developed like a running gag between friends. A few weeks after that, the friends were on the highway, the German autobahn, and they passed our city ... and the exit was closed. 

So the guys, they went nuts in the car. "Look, look! It doesn't exist! It's true! It's true!"

And one day, Achim decided just to write the whole thing up to make fun of strange conspiracy theories that were developing on the internet, at the early stages of the internet, to make fun of them.


But there are still people who believe it, right?

Achim has been contacted over the past year by people who actually believe that he's up to something — that this is some part of something bigger, where wherever the dark forces are trying to manipulate the world, and just this tiny town ... is just a part of a whole conspiracy.

So he has been contacted by these people, but luckily [there] weren't that many of them.

I understand your Chancellor Angela Merkel actually contributed to the problem?

Yes, she made a joke in 2012 at a press conference. A few days before that, she'd just been to a conference in Bielefeld, and she talked to the press about it and she made a joke about it.

It went something like: I've been to Bielefeld for this and that conference. I had the impression it does exist.

All the press was stunned because Angela Merkel doesn't joke. She never jokes. That's not her style.

Afterwards, she clarified that this is just a joke.

Jens Franzke is the press officer for Bielefeld, which is offering $1.5 million to anyone who can prove the city doesn't exist. (Submitted by Jens Franzke)

Now, I've looked it up and I see that Bielefeld is actually the 18th largest city in Germany. There are 340,000 people there. What is it like to be one of those people when you travel elsewhere in Germany and you have to say where you're from?

It's pretty funny. 

For example, when you are at a party and you introduce yourself, nine out of 10 times the other person says, "Oh, Bielefeld. It doesn't exist, right?" 

So everybody knows this running joke.

This time, we're having fun with the conspiracy instead of the other way round.- Jens Franzke, Bielefeld spokesperson 

Has it grown a little bit tired, maybe?

To be honest, yeah. Actually, that's the point of the whole campaign or the whole story that we're trying to communicate now.

It started 25 years ago, so this year is like a special anniversary for this whole thing. And we were thinking maybe just, like, let's try to do something positive with it. Like, this time, we're having fun with the conspiracy instead of the other way around.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel fanned the flames of the Bielefeld conspiracy when she cracked a joke about it in 2012. (Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

Aren't you kind of fanning the flames a little bit?

When we started developing this idea, we were thinking about this a lot, because there is a risk.

Our thinking was first this story does exist, and in Germany it's big. It's huge. Everybody knows about it. So ignoring is not an option.

You can just stay passive, but that's no solution. And we were thinking, OK, what options do we have here? Do something with it. Become active. Become the one who is telling the joke themselves and writing another chapter, writing a completely new chapter.

The end of this campaign, of this competition so to speak, will be that the city of Bielefeld will say goodbye to the conspiracy. We'll do a little ceremony at the end.

What kind of proof are people offering?

We have received 500 submissions from all over the world.

Most of the proofs, they are jokes themselves. So they make up funny things about Bielefeld. They are doing crazy stuff with Photoshop. They are manipulating Google Maps. They are posting different kind of pictures. Some people are really developing really complex mathematical proofs. 

What happens if someone actually manages to prove that you don't exist?

Then we have a problem. A big problem.

Do you have €1 million to give?

Actually, if we do not exist, where do you get your money from?

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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