There are lots of things the German people aren't known for. They're not famed for their pleasant small talk, or their vegan dishes, or their ill-preparedness when it comes to getting up at five to put beach towels on every lounge chair in the holiday resort. Another thing they're not known for is their sense of humor. This is absurd since the Germans are responsible for the funniest meme the internet has ever spawned. Are you ready for the lulz? Here it is:
Have you heard of Bielefeld, the 18th largest city in Germany?
That's because it doesn't exist!
Oh, you're still here? I figured you were being rushed to the nearest hospital on account of your sides splitting so hard they had to peel your spleen from the wall. I must not have told the joke right. Let's start from the beginning. The Bielefeld Conspiracy, or as the Germans call it, DIE BIELEFELDVERSCHWÖRUNG, is one of the earliest internet memes ever created. In 1993, German computer science student Achim Held met someone at a party who told him they were from Bielefeld. He reacted that he had never heard of the place and that, therefore, "it does not exist." Held's hi-larious hypothesis then turned into a game of existential one-upmanship. Partygoers would add outlandish logical leaps until Bielefeld had transformed from an unremarkable industry city into a grand hoax, and every picture, document, and road sign pointing to its existence was fake news fabricated by a CIA/Mossad/alien shadow society only known as THEM.
Held eventually posted this fake fake city conspiracy on Usenet, the proto-internet message board, for a lark. To his surprise, other Very Online Germans declared that the joke was comedy with a capital C (not because it's funny, that's just how their grammar works). The "Bielefeld Doesn't Exist" meme spread farther and wider across the Deutsche datasphere than a helmetless motorcyclist across the Autobahn. To this day, whenever someone posts something online about Bielefeld, dozens of German users will swarm them, insisting there's no such place. And anyone claiming they're actually one of the city's 340,000 locals will immediately be accused of being fake or, worse, a plant working for THEM.
Over the next decades, the Bielefeld Conspiracy moved out of Berlin basements and entered the zeitgeist. Its mayor still receives dozens of calls and letters every year asking if his city actually exists. Soccer teams in the German Bundesliga continue to insist that the Bielefeld Arminias are merely an urban legend. Even notorious laugh riot Angela Merkel got in on the Bielefeld bashing in 2012. Talking about her official visit to the city, she added, "If it exists at all," and, "I had the impression that I was there." It made the attending Germans laugh so hard they hoisted Merkel onto their shoulders, declared her Germany's God-Queen of Comedy, and gave her her own Netflix stand-up special.
So what does the fictitious city of Bielefeld have to say about this? While its citizens aren't happy with being simultaneously gaslit and ghosted by the rest of the country, its marketing department couldn't be happier that its biggest claim to fame is no longer its renowned frozen pizza and pudding museum. The city has pulled plenty of PR stunts that reference the conspiracy over the years, including a serious national statement declaring that "Bielefeld does exist" -- on April 1st. On the 25th anniversary of the meme, they went so far as to offer a reward of one million Euros (1.2 million USD) for anyone who could definitively prove the conspiracy. When none could to their satisfaction, the mayor declared the meme officially over (that's how the internet works, right?) and celebrated their reaffirmed existence by placing a giant geotagged boulder in the middle of the city square.
At least, that's what they claim. When I checked Google Earth, that rock looked like it was standing in a field surrounded by two-dimensional cardboard cutouts of building facades.
For more Merkel-grade jokes, you can find Cedric on Twitter. If it exists at all.
Top Image: Michael Pereckas/Flickr