How One School Experiment Became an Ode to Nazism
School. It truly is fascinating how a singular aspect of our childhood lives can have such a profound and irreversible impact on the kind of people we become when we grow up. There are a lot of firsts and so many new experiences. Your first true friendship, I still remember mine in astonishing detail. Granted, not all of us manage to get the best experience out of our school lives. There’s the bullies, the heartbreak, the social isolation. A constant fear of failing, accompanied by an insane amount of stress that manifests itself in the form of expectations and personal ambitions.
In April 1967, however, several students at the Ellwood P. Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California were faced with a coming-of-age experience unlike anything we have read in books or seen at the movies.
It was Monday. Ron Jones, the twenty-something history teacher, had just arrived in class. Among the students, he had already secured quite the reputation thanks to his youthful zeal and unorthodox thinking. Today, he and his students were going to participate in a little experiment. It was an exercise in discipline, explained the young teacher, going on to further seduce his students with the idea of a steady mind and a controlled desire. “The exchange of physical hardships for superior mental and physical facilities,” he went on. “The ultimate triumph.” The exercise was simple. Sit straight, back upright, feet planted firmly on the ground, hands crossed behind the small of your back. Moving slowly from one row to the next, the teacher personally made sure that every single student had adhered to the strict standards of his new seating posture. It took a while, but in the end, he was quite pleased. He wrapped up his class with a new set of rules:
“Students must be sitting in class at the attention position before the late bell; all students must carry pencils and paper for note taking; when asking or answering questions a student must stand at the side of their desk; the first word given in answering or asking a question is “Mr. Jones.” We practiced short “silent reading” sessions. Students who responded in a sluggish manner were reprimanded and in every case made to repeat their behavior until it was a model of punctuality and respect.”
It worked like a charm. The class was in order and the students ever so attentive. Even the most introverted of pupils now wanted to get involved, and grades improved steadily. Now, the teacher was simply curious.
Tuesday. Now that the teacher had established compliance, the next step was to find a common thread that binds the group together. A higher purpose. A greater calling. Something to be a part of, something greater than any one person. Mr. Jones walked into class, and with chalk, he etched a few words onto the slate, white on black. “Strength Through Discipline,” the first one read. “Strength Through Community,” read the other. Today, his lectures focused mostly on the benefits of a tightly knit community. He called on the students by name, asking them to recite their new motto in unison, over and over and over again.
Before he finished off for the day, Mr. Jones taught his class a new salute. You had to raise your right hand in a curved position. He called it the Third Wave. As he was about to leave, yet another new rule. Students must salute all members of their class whenever they encountered each other outside the classroom.
The Movement Grows
As members of the group practiced their salute outside class and in public, even students who weren’t part of the class expressed an interest to join. By the third day, class strength increased from 30 to 43. By now, the teacher was quite obsessed. This level of authority and control was completely new to him. He wanted to see just how far the students would bend to his will before they finally let out. Membership cards were issued to every student in the class. Students were actively encouraged to recruit people from outside their group to join what they now called the experiment. A sense of unity and purpose seemed to develop. Academic performance improved remarkably. To maximize group involvement, Mr. Jones decided to give each member within the group a specific task to complete, ranging from designing a new banner to recruiting students from the elementary school next door. Three of the members were assigned the special task of reporting any breach of conduct within the members.
It was perhaps at this point that things started to take an eerie turn. The cult had drawn everybody, from the librarian to the school principal. And while devotion for the group continued to rise, loyalty towards each other started to shatter within the members. Students would often snitch on their fellow schoolmates, reporting insubordination that may or may not have occurred. The students seemed to grow paranoid, forming and sticking to their own subgroups and conspiring against each other. Bullying amongst group members became an issue. With morning, the teacher came to the slow realization of what he had set in motion. Things were getting out of control. Word was spreading amongst parents about his little cult. The school routine was in shambles.
And yet, the students remained strangely complaisant. By Thursday, Mr. Jones knew that the experiment had to end. Eighty students sat in class this time, in perfect silence and discipline. The teacher gave a little speech:
“The Third Wave isn’t just an experiment or classroom activity. It’s far more important than that. The Third Wave Is a nationwide program to find students who are willing to fight for political change in this country. That’s right. This activity we have been doing has been practice for the real thing. Across the country teachers like myself have been recruiting and training a youth brigade capable of showing the nation a better society through discipline, community. pride, and action. If we can change the way that school is run, we can change the way that factories, stores, universities and all the other institutions are run. You are a selected group of young people chosen to help in this cause. If you will stand up and display what you have learned in the past four days…we can change the destiny of this nation. We can bring it a new sense of order. community, pride and action. A new purpose. Everything rests with you and your willingness to take a stand.”
Slowly, he added, that a special rally was about to be held the next afternoon. There, a presidential candidate would announce the formation of the Nationwide Third Wave Youth Program.
“It’s all set for tomorrow. Be in the small auditorium ten minutes before 12:00. Be seated. Be ready to display the discipline, community, and pride you have learned. Don’t talk to anyone about this. This rally is for members only.”
Out of Control
Mr. Jones felt optimistic. Perhaps any moment now one of the students will break formation and the whole group will come down in a roar of laughter. But everyone was dead serious.
Two hundred students appeared at the auditorium the next morning. Group banners hung from walls and off the ceiling. The teacher stood at the front of it all, propped next to a television set displaying nothing but static. Hours went by, but no leader came. Eventually, someone got bold enough to get up and ask what was going on. That’s when the teacher gave his explanation:
“Listen closely, I have something important to tell you. Sit down. There is no leader! There is no such thing as a national youth movement called the Third Wave. You have been used. Manipulated. Shoved by your own desires into the place you now find yourself. You are no better or worse than the German Nazis we have been studying.
You thought that you were the elect. That you were better than those outside this room. You bargained your freedom for the comfort of discipline and superiority. You chose to accept that group’s will and the big lie over your own conviction. Oh, you think to yourself that you were just going along for the fun. That you could extricate yourself at any moment. But where were you heading? How far would you have gone? Let me show you your future.”
And the display switched to a recording of the Nuremberg Rally. The true horror of Nazi Germany, of death marches and concentration camps, of fanaticism and holocaust, was now on full display. The crowd broke into disorder. Hushed whispers, and then, students crying. The pupils turned to comfort one another. They realized now what they had become: instruments to a dictatorship. And for what?
Shortly after the Second World War, there was a spur of academic curiosity in trying to understand the functioning of Nazi Germany. Terrible things had happened and people wanted to know how exactly an entire nation could be coerced into being motionless bystanders to such terrible crime. Ironically, however, the number of experiments conducted to understand the nature of cult psychology is very few.
Ethical concerns, for one, have always been a hurdle. And indeed, there’s a whole lot to be said about the ethical and moral compass of a teacher who is willing to turn his entire class into a bunch of lab rats simply to make a point. Ron Jones says that he regrets his actions to this day. So far as the original purpose of the experiment is concerned, however, it was a great success. It exposed the fragility of the human mind and the senseless need to belong that seems to drive us all.
In 1964, Melita Maschmann, a former member of the Hitler Youth, published a memoir of her life as a nazi agent. Fazit, as it was called, was a book written in the form of a letter, addressed from Melita Maschmann to Marianne Schweitzer, her childhood friend. In it, she described her experience as a fifteen-year-old member of the Nazi regime, the sheer horror of the atrocities committed by her during the war held in sharp contrast with how entirely normal she was as a young girl. Those horrible people, we keep telling ourselves, those monsters among men who went to such despicable lengths in the name of misguided nationalism. But really, the monster lives in all of us.
Those we shun today as nazis or white supremacists were not demons from another world, but entirely normal people, friends, and neighbors, carpenters and fishermen, ordinary people whose minds were distorted to great lengths in a time of indescribable political strife. We think that we are better. We think that, had we been in their stead, we would have chosen a different path, been better people. But really, how could we possibly know for sure?
The Third Wave Experiment makes a terrifying point, one that is all the more relevant given our current political climate. Everyone is vulnerable, in their own way. And there are demons living inside all of us. Given the right circumstances, who knows exactly what we are capable of?