It started off as a throwaway remark by a student who expressed faux incredulity at meeting someone from the western German town of Bielefeld.
“Das gibt’s doch gar nicht,” or “that simply cannot be,” Achim Held, an IT student, said at a party in 1994, giving birth to what became known as the Bielefeld conspiracy.
The jokey theory that Held concocted and shared with friends was initially something akin to a parlour game in which participants had to use their skills of persuasion to argue that Bielefeld, Germany’s 20th largest city, was actually a figment of the imagination.
Twenty-five years later, it has a cult following, helped in large part by the internet. Held, now a computer expert, believes it continues to serve its initial purpose of ridiculing all popular conspiracy theories. For those who may be offended by the idea that Bielefeld does not exist, he insists the choice of city was pure accident.
That has not stopped the city’s marketing department from using the Bielefeld conspiracy’s popularity to help boost a low key, some would say nondescript, profile.
Around 2,000 people have now taken up the offer to enter a competition promising a €1m (£896,000) reward to anyone who can present solid proof that Bielefeld really is made up. Launched last month, it invited participants to “by all means be infinitely creative” but to “deliver incontrovertible evidence”.
Following Wednesday night’s deadline for entries, marketing chiefs are poring over the answers, 300 of which have come from abroad, and will announce the winning result on 17 September. “We are having lots of laughs,” a spokesman said.
Previous evidence offered of the non-existence of the city, which if history books are to be believed was founded in the 15th century and became home to a thriving cloth industry, include the closing of its autobahn exit roads for major road works in 1993 and the fact that train timetables indicate impossibly tight gaps between the stopping and continuing of a journey.
Cars with BI number plates, indicating that they come from Bielefeld, are sent across the country as part of the attempt to keep up appearances. The CIA, Mossad and aliens are cited as being behind the conspiracy, using Bielefeld as a cover for what has even been suggested might be the entrance to Atlantis, the fictional island mentioned by Plato.
Even Angela Merkel has entered the realm of the Bielefeld conspiracy, referring in 2012 to a town hall meeting she had attended there “ … if it exists at all”. She said: “I had the impression that I was there … I do hope I’ll be able to return.”