By Nina Renata Aron
Jan 25 2017
In 1967, when Ron Jones, a 25-year-old social studies teacher in Palo Alto, California, set out to teach his 10th grade students about the events leading up to the Holocaust, he found that many of them couldn’t get over the question of how ordinary Germans had been coerced into complicity with the regime.
Jones, by all accounts a charismatic, well-loved, “cool” teacher, decided that the best way to teach students how easily people can be swayed by fearsome leaders or swept up by ideology was to demonstrate it.
“We’re going to do an experiment, a non-threatening experiment,” Jones told his students one day, according to a former student. He began acting more stern than usual, and unveiled a new set of rules by which he expected they’d abide in the classroom. It was jarring, but, like any diversion from the monotony of high school, it was also fun, at first.
Jones says he thought the experiment would only last a day. But when he arrived the following day, all of the students were already sitting bolt upright at their desks. “Good morning, Mr. Jones!” they said in unison, as they’d been told to do the day before. According to a former student, Jones did a double take. “Oh my gosh,” he gasped. The experiment continued.
“The first few days, the Third Wave was a game. We had lots of rules, we had lots of things we had to do,” recalls one of Jones’s former students in the 2011 documentary Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave. They included saluting one another with a Nazi-style hand gesture, standing to ask questions (which had to be posed in three words or less), and working on a nebulous project to “eliminate democracy.” Unity was central to the Third Wave’s ethos, and the group made banners bearing their logo, which read “Strength through Involvement” and “Strength Through Discipline.” The students were also prohibited from gathering in groups larger than two (though a school newspaper from the time says it was three).
The students were told that if they went along with the experiment, they’d get an “A.” If they tried to overthrow Jones in any way, they’d get an “F.” If they refused to participate, they’d be banished to the library.
Perhaps most importantly, Jones told them that participation in the Third Wave was all-encompassing: the rules applied in class and at school, but also outside of school, and even at home. If you saw a fellow member and failed to salute them, you could be reported and tried. A conviction for breaking the rules would mean you’d be sent to the library — that is, cast out of the Third Wave. “You never knew who was going to come in the next morning and turn you in. All the lines of communication between students were broken down because of that,” one student remembers.
In a radio interview, a former student describes the climate of fear that was quick to develop among students, “rumours on top of rumours.” Trust between students, even those who’d been friends, were quick to erode. The heavy emphasis on “unity” was undercut by the atmosphere of suspicion that Jones’s expectations had created.
By just the fourth day, Jones felt he was losing control over the experiment. It had attracted the attention of other students and the movement had grown — there was even an active resistance to it. Jones decided it had to end. He announced to students that the Third Wave was part of a national movement and asked them to attend a rally the following afternoon at which a presidential candidate would be announced. When the students arrived at the auditorium the following day, Jones unveiled a screen that was playing only static. After a few minutes of near-silent squirming, Jones revealed to the students that they’d been part of an experiment in planting the seeds of fascism. He ended the meeting by playing a film about Nazism.
Students describe relief when the experiment was over. Some were horrified that they’d so neatly played out a transition to fascistic thought and behavior. Others simply confirmed that their hunches about the creepy new classroom vibe were right.
The experiment went on to be fictionalized in the 1981 after-school special The Wave, and a 2008 German film by the same name (Die Welle). Jones’s experiment had many detractors, including some parents and fellow faculty who thought he was taking advantage of his power to unfairly indoctrinate a captive audience—rather than simply educating them about indoctrination. When Jones came up for tenure two years later, he was denied.
But as a simulation of the normalization of fascism — the pleasure of membership, the creeping thrill of exclusion, and the comfort of discipline and rules — the experiment was unquestionably a success. It vividly illustrated the chilling conclusion theorist Hannah Arendt came to at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann: that most members of the SS were “neither perverted nor sadistic,” but rather, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”