The Third Wave is one of my favorite social experiments, one I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time now.
I’ve heard this question crop up quite a few times, “How did the Germans not realize what the Nazis were doing during the Second World War?” It’s a logical question, asking how an entire nation could simply not know of concentration camp systems and the death of somewhere between 6 million and 10 million people.
It’s overwhelming to know that the Second World War is by far the most popular subject within history among high school students, yet that we still have so many misconceptions about it within our education system. Some simple points: Hitler wasn’t a leftist, the Nazis are actually the bad guys in this story, and the German people have a rather strong case behind them actually not knowing of the terrors lurking within their own borders.
Let me introduce you to The Third Wave, a social experiment that took place in a Californian high school during April of 1967. High school history teacher Ron Jones found it difficult to answer the question proposed at the beginning of this article.
His students, your typical 15-year-old sophomores within a contemporary world history class, could not grasp the idea that the Germans claimed ignorance when it came to the extermination of the Jewish people within the Holocaust. Lost for words, Mr. Jones decided to demonstrate it to his students.
On the first day of the experiment, Mr. Jones forced his students to follow simple tasks: sitting upright, sitting “properly” in terms of posture, and having them do extensive drills to see just how fast they could follow instructions. He asked them to stand up whenever they needed to speak, their arms to their sides, and that they could not ask or answer a question without starting their sentence with “Mr. Jones,”. He enforced strict classroom discipline, shaping himself to be a totalitarian figure – within the first day he witnessed a dramatic increase in “efficiency” among the students.
That was the end of the lesson, as he had intended it to be a one-day experiment.
However, after entering his classroom on the second day to witness his students still following the “rules” he had given them previously, he continued. He crafted his history class, from the laziest and slowest all the way up to the most academically exceptional, into a group of miniature nationalists.
He announced that they were all members of his new movement, “The Third Wave”. He introduced them to the special salute, which resembled that of the ‘Sieg Heil’ Bellamy salute of the Nazi regime. He ordered them that as a community, they had to salute each other in and outside the class. It worked, and they agreed.
By the third day, everything was out of control. The experiment came to life, with a mind of its own. No longer was the “Third Wave” a group of thirty students in one classroom, it spread like wildfire around the school. By the end of the third day, Mr. Jones and his movement consisted of 200 participants from around the school.
It was recorded that the students showed an incredible amount of improvement in their academic skills and suddenly developed tremendous dedication to work and extreme motivation due to their new-founded patriotism. They were to show strength through dignity, strength through community, strength through involvement, and strength through pride.
Mr. Jones passed out membership cards, giving them each special assignments to “better the community” in which they were now involved in. Some kids designed banners with the insignia of the movement to hang around the school, others stopped non-members from entering classrooms, many passed out pamphlets in the hallways between classes in an attempt to recruit new members. Mr. Jones was astonished when members of his movement began reporting to him, ratting out their friends and fellow classmates for failing to abide to the strict set of rules given by Mr. Jones on the first and second days.
Mr. Jones realized that things were going too far, and on the fourth day of the experiment he terminated the continuation of his role within the cycle it was taking. He was starting to lose control of the kids, and the kids were starting to become brainwashed in a sense. They were becoming increasingly involved with the Third Wave movement, with their senses of ‘discipline’, ‘community’, and ‘loyalty’ overtaking their individuality. Several students were becoming anti-democracy in a sense, overturning individuality for a higher sense of being prominent “members” of the Third Wave.
Mr. Jones knew he had to end it quick, but decided to Segway the experiment towards his favor. He announced to the school that the Third Wave had gone national, and that the next day – the fifth and final day of the experiment – was going to be a special announcement from a so-called “presidential candidate” that happened to be a card carrying member of the movement itself. The kids were ecstatic, wearing arm bands bearing the symbolism of The Wave and dawned in similar clothing to showcase the “strength of community” among them. Mr. Jones ordered that all students within his movement were to attend a rally within the school’s auditorium at noon the next day to witness the announcement personally.
At this point, there was a public outcry from teachers and parents alike. Apparently a few fist fights had broken out between the so-called “secret police” of the Wave and some “non-believers” who broke Mr. Jones’ rules. Parents worried, not knowing or understanding the hidden meaning behind the social experiment. The words “cult” and “power abusive” were later recalled. Mr. Jones was under fire, being caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of what he actually set out to accomplish.
On the fifth and final day of the experiment, a Friday, the students gathered in the auditorium to witness what they thought was going to be history in the making. Eager and awaiting to see the presidential candidate that was going to recognize and speak for them, they were presented with an empty channel.
After a few moments, Jones announced that they had been a part of an experiment in fascism, on how the Germans went along with Hitler’s plans without realizing the true intentions of the Nazi regime. He expressed how all the students in the room willingly and openly created a sense of superiority much like the German citizens had with the Aryan race before World War II even began.
They were then introduced to their presidential candidate as Mr. Jones ended his speech. He put on a film recording of Adolf Hitler’s speeches which led into a documentary about Nazi Germany.
Since the experiment ended, it’s been morphed into a book, a theater play, a full blown movie, and a 40-minute short, which I’ll link below if you’re interested in watching (blah, blah copyright rules blah, blah creative common rights and what not – it’s on YouTube; sue them not me).
Of course, this isn’t the only experiment to show the social aspects and psychological reality of Nazi Germany. Milgrim’s psychological study on obedience proves to us what an authoritative chain of command does to people in position of execution.
So, if you or anyone you know every wonders “How did the Germans not realize what the Nazis were doing during the Second World War?”, I hope you’ll recall how Mr. Jones taught his kids.