The Third Wave: The Experiment that Turned High Schoolers into proto-Nazis

American troops guarding the gates of the infamous concentration camp, Dachau

American troops guarding the gates of the infamous concentration camp, Dachau

The crimes of the Nazi regime baffle the ability for the human mind to comprehend them. The Nazis were not only responsible for plunging the world into a war that would kill 60 to 100 million people in six years, but they perpetrated the Holocaust, the most infamous genocide in history where more than 6 million people, mostly Jewish people but also homosexuals, the infirm, the mentally ill, Gypsies, and other groups the Nazis dubbed inferior.

Ever since the collapse of the Nazi empire and the revelations concerning their evil deeds, science has tried to understand how things could go so wrong. Many psychological and sociological experiments were performed in the wake of the atrocities to try and understand how such a thing could happen. The most infamous of these was the Milgram experiment, where participants administered deadly shocks to people on the order of men dressed as doctors.

The most unorthodox and frightening of these journeys into the human psyche was not performed by a scientist at all. His name was Ron Jones, and he was a high school history teacher. In April of 1967, at Cubberly High School in Northern California, he was teaching his students about Nazi Germany when one of them asked how the German citizens could ignore the slaughter of the Jews in their midst? How could they claim ignorance, or, worse, that they were just doing their jobs? It’s a question many have asked in the decades since World War II. Jones found himself without an answer, so he formulated an on the fly experiment to delve into the German mindset. What followed was five days when a teacher’s demonstration flew out of control and founded a proto-fascist movement called the Third Wave.

 

Five days in the Nazi brain

The exercise started innocuously enough. Jones began by introducing to a key quality that allowed the Nazis to turn otherwise normal people into monsters: discipline. He lectured on how discipline was a powerful force that allowed a person to control their destiny and triumph over their more basic urges. It was the force that drove athletes, artists, and scientists alike to succeed in their fields. He then gave a simple exercise in discipline: he ordered his students to adopt a strict, upright seating posture. He drilled them to take this posture immediately upon entering the classroom by having them stand and then sit at attention as quickly as possible. What surprised Jones was how fast the students took to the strict discipline; in fact, many of them seemed to enjoy it. What surprised him even more was that on the second day he walked into the classroom and found them all sitting at attention.

Continuing the experiment. Jones wrote two messages on the blackboard: “Strength through discipline” and “Strength through community.” He lectured on the value of community, and then had the class recite the two phrases in unison. Jones himself became sucked into the building sense of unity, feeling less like an instructor or even an experimenter, but rather a leader of a group that he’d created himself. By the end of the class, he spontaneously created a distinct salute to only be used among the group. He called it the Third Wave salute because the hand position resembled an ocean wave. The name itself, Third Wave, came to define the group. Surfer lore holds that waves come in three, with the third being the biggest.

A funny thing happened then. The students began to greet each other using the salute. Other students saw this, and soon students from other classes began to ask if they could join the group. On day three, thirteen students cut class to join Jones’ class. That day he issued membership cards to identify members. He then lectured on the importance of taking action as the community and for the community. He gave students assignments to do on behalf of the group, from designing banners to guarding the classroom door. Perhaps most disturbing was the three students he assigned to police the others, telling them to report when other students criticized the movement or broke classroom rules. He also set up a mechanism by which other students at the high school could join the group.

Things began to get out of control by this point. Many students clamored to join the group. Even teachers and administrators started to adopt the Third Wave salute. The three students assigned to police the group were soon joined by about half the Third Wave members, who kept wary eyes on one another in search of even the smallest infraction. Jones began to agonize over what he had started. He found himself the accidental dictator of a proto-fascist group.

 

The demise of the Third Wave

"Bundesarchiv Bild 102-04062A, Nürnberg, Reichsparteitag, SA- und SS-Appell" by Unknown - This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project. The German Federal Archive guarantees an authentic representation only using the originals (negative and/or positive), resp. the digitalization of the originals as provided by the Digital Image Archive.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-de via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-04062A,_N%C3%BCrnberg,_Reichsparteitag,_SA-_und_SS-Appell.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-04062A,_N%C3%BCrnberg,_Reichsparteitag,_SA-_und_SS-Appell.jpg

Photo from the Nuremburg Rally of 1934. Source: Wikipedia/German Federal Archive

By Thursday of that week, Jones began to try and bring the experiment to a close. Many students were becoming far too engrossed in the Third Wave; it was becoming the main thing in their lives. Students were cutting class to join the group. School counselors were beginning to investigate the Third Wave. Eighty students crammed themselves into Jones’ classroom that day, eagerly awaiting the next lecture. Jones confided to the group that they were a part of a nationwide movement aimed at spurring young people to change the way society is run. It was not an experiment: It was a revolution. Their leader would reveal himself the next day at a noon rally for Third Wave members.

The students were thrilled. The next day some 200 students gathered in the gym. Jones had set up a television set that would supposedly broadcast the leader’s message. The students were confused when the television played nothing but static. Jones revealed that there was no leader, that the whole experiment was just that, an experiment. He then turned on a projector showing clips from the Nuremberg rallies. He said that they had fallen into the German mindset, giving up their individuality to the group, based on the idea that they were somehow superior to others by being part of the group. The students were horrified. Many started to cry, while others sat in shock.

Once the “rally” ended, the Third Wave was over. Jones was fired two years later, although not explicitly for the Third Wave experiment. Jones feels remorse for the experiment, wishing that he had ended it long before he accidentally formed a teenage fascist party.

 

Sources:

Jones, Ron. “The third wave, 1967: an account – Ron Jones.” Libcom.org. October 14, 2008. Libcom.org. July 13, 2014 http://libcom.org/history/the-third-wave-1967-account-ron-jones