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The Third Wave

Could the fascism of WWII and Hitler's regime ever happen again? Maybe that's not the right question. Maybe the questions should be is it happening now? To what extent? And, am I participating in it unwittingly? What within us allows us to participate in such things and why can't we see the dangers? Because it is happening, in different places all around the world... and even in our own communities. Ultimately, how can we recognize it, and more importantly, how can we stop it.

This article is based on the writings and consequent story of the what might be described as an incident that occurred at a High School in California in the 1960's. But to call it an incident does not do justice to the relevance or the magnitude of what occurred, not just to the students that swore to secrecy the extent of the event, but to the shattering reality of our potential to falter in reason, or achieve our greatest shame….

Fascism is one of the most dangerous forms of collective human behavior ever observed. Of course it is often mixed with many factors to become manifest and those factors dictate the degree of severity of the manifestation.

The story occurred in California in the first week of April, 1967, where Ron Jones, a High school teacher, wanted to teach about Hitler and what happened in WWII. His students did not understand how people could become so caught up in something so evil and then claim that it never happened. Ron figured out a way to get them to understand this lesson – by living it!

They asked:

"How could the German soldier, teacher, railroad conductor, nurse. tax collector. The average citizen, claim at the end of the Third Reich that they knew nothing of what was going on. How can a people be a part of something and then claim at the demise that they were not really involved. What causes people to blank out their own history?"

  • How could the Germans just stand by and do nothing.
  • If only 10% of the German population were members of the Nazi Party, why didn't anyone do anything?
  • How could 10 million Jews be exterminated and no one know?


The teacher thought about how to help them understand. How to teach about what happened and he came up with an idea. He did not realize how dangerous the idea was. Even he as a teacher did not seem to fully recognize the power and danger that fascism creates. Mr. Jones himself may not have understood just how powerful even just mimicking the methods of fascism would make it real..., that his students could actually get caught up in it, and not simply learn about fascism, but become fascists.


Three things were remarkable about the experiment.

  1. How fast the students became caught up in it.
  2. How fast it began to manifest in not just behavior, but violent behavior.
  3. And lastly, that the teacher himself would fall victim of his own experiment.


The following videos are a start reminder of the dangers of the use of such methods to control or direct human behavior. Have you ever wondered:

  • How do wars start?
  • What is group-think?
  • Why do some people think they are better than others?

Perhaps the most startling thing about this story set in California in the late 1960's is that it is a true story. This really happened, and the lesson is one that we should all learn, so we can recognize mechanisms and traits of fascist behavior in ourselves and our social environment through group dynamics and behavior.


The Wave Part 1


The Wave Part 2



It was 1976. The teachers name was Ron Jones. Here he shares his thoughts long after 'The Third Wave' had occurred. Nearly 10 years later, the story begins to see more light of day. It might amaze one to realize that from beginning to end, the wave was no more than a week in duration, but its impacts will resonate in the minds of those that were there, that felt it, that experienced it, for a lifetime. And for those of us willing to see how easily we can all fall into 'the wave', let it be a warning and a call to reason….

Ron Jones: Once again I faced the thought of closing the experiment or letting it go its own course. Both options were unworkable. If I stopped the experiment a great number of students would be left hanging. They had committed themselves in front of their peers to radical behavior. Emotionally and psychologically they had exposed themselves. If I suddenly jolted them back to classroom reality I would face a confused student-body for the remainder of the year. It would be too painful and demeaning for Robert and the students like him to be twisted back into a seat and told it's just a game. They would take the ridicule from the brighter students that participated in a measured and cautious way. I couldn't let the Roberts lose again.

The other option of just letting the experiment run its course was also out of the question. Things were already getting out of control. Wednesday evening someone had broken into the room and ransacked the place. I later found out it was the father of one of the students. He was a retired Air Force colonel who had spent time in a German prisoner of war camp. Upon hearing of our activity he simply lost control. Late in the evening he broke into the room and tore it apart. I found him that morning propped up against the classroom door. He told me about his friends that had been killed in Germany. He was holding on to me and shaking. In staccato words he pleaded that I understand and help him get home. I called his wife and with the help of a neighbor walked him home. We spent hours later talking about what he felt and did, but from that moment on Thursday morning I was more concerned with what might be happening at school.

I was increasingly worried about how our activity was affecting the faculty and other students in the school. The Third Wave was disrupting normal learning. Students were cutting class to participate, and the school counselors were beginning to question every student in the class. The real gestapo in the school was at work. Faced with this experiment exploding in one hundred directions, I decided to try an old basketball strategy. When you're playing against all the odds the best action to take is to try the unexpected. That's what I did.

By Thursday the class had swollen in size to over eighty students. The only thing that allowed them all to fit was the enforced discipline of sitting in silence at attention. A strange calm is in effect when a room full of people sit in quite observation and anticipation. It helped me approach them in a deliberate way. I talked about pride. "Pride is more than banners or salutes. Pride Is something no one can take from you. Pride is knowing you are the best.... It can't be destroyed..."

In the midst of this crescendo I abruptly changed and lowered my voice to announce the real reason for the Third Wave. In slow methodical tone I explained what was behind the Third Wave. "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 this 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."

To give validity to the seriousness of my words I turned to the three women in the class whom I knew had questioned the Third Wave. I demanded that they leave the room. I explained why I acted and then assigned four guards to escort the women to the library and to restrain them from entering the class on Friday. Then in dramatic style I informed the class of a special noon rally to take place on Friday. This would be a rally for Third Wave Members only.

It was a wild gamble. I just kept talking. Afraid that if I stopped someone would laugh or ask a question and the grand scheme would dissolve in chaos. I explained how at noon on Friday a national candidate for president would announce the formation of a Third Wave Youth Program. Simultaneous to this announcement over 1000 youth groups from every part of the country would stand up and display their support for such a movement. I confided that they were the students selected to represent their area. I also questioned if they could make a good showing, because the press had been invited to record the event. No one laughed. There was not a murmur of resistance. quite the contrary. A fever pitch of excitement swelled across the room. "We can do it!" "Should we wear white shirts?" "Can we bring friends?" "Mr. Jones, have you seen this advertisement in Time magazine?"

The clincher came quite by accident. It was a full page color advertisement in the current issue of Time for some lumber products. The advertiser identified his product as the Third Wave. The advertisement proclaimed in big red, white and blue letters, "The Third Wave is coming." "Is this part of the campaign, Mr. Jones?" "Is it a code or something?" "Yes." "Now listen carefully."

"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 the pride you have learned. Don't talk to anyone about this. This rally is for members only."


On Friday, the final day of the exercise, I spent the early morning preparing the auditorium for the rally. At eleven thirty students began to ant their way into the room; at first a few scouting the way and then more. Row after row began to fill. A hushed silence shrouded the room. Third Wave banners hung like clouds over the assembly. At twelve o'clock sharp I closed the room and placed guards at each door. Several friends of mine posing as reporters and photographers began to interact with the crowd taking pictures and jotting frantic descriptive notes. A group photograph was taken. Over two hundred students were crammed into the room. Not a vacant seat could be found. The group seemed to be composed of students from many persuasions. There were the athletes, the social prominents, the student leaders, the loners, the group of kids that always left school early, the bikers, the pseudo hip, a few representatives of the school's dadaist click, and some of the students that hung out at the laundromat. The entire collection however looked like one force as they sat in perfect attention. Every person focusing on the T.V. set I had in the front of the room. No one moved. The room was empty of sound. It was like we were all witness to a birth. The tension and anticipation was beyond belief.

"Before turning on the national press conference, which begins in five minutes, I want to demonstrate to the press the extent of our training." With that, I gave the salute followed automatically by two hundred arms stabbing a reply. I then said the words "Strength Through Discipline" followed by a repetitive chorus. We did this again, and again. Each time the response was louder. The photographers were circling the ritual snapping pictures, but by now they were ignored. I reiterated the importance of this event and asked once more for a show of allegiance. It was the last time I would ask anyone to recite. The room rocked with a guttural cry, "Strength Through Discipline."

It was 12:05. I turned off the lights in the room and walked quickly to the television set. The air in the room seemed to be drying up. It felt hard to breathe and even harder to talk. It was as if the climax of shouting souls had pushed everything out of the room. I switched the television set on. I was now standing next to the television directly facing the room full of people. The machine came to life producing a luminous field of phosphorus light. Robert was at my side. I whispered to him to watch closely and pay attention to the next few minutes. The only light in the room was coming from the television and it played against the faces in the room. Eyes strained and pulled at the light but the pattern didn't change. The room stayed deadly still. Waiting. There was a mental tug of war between the people in the room and the television. The television won. The white glow of the test pattern didn't snap into the vision of a political candidate. It just whined on. Still the viewers persisted. There must be a program. It must be coming on. Where is it? The trance with the television continued for what seemed like hours. It was 12:07. Nothing. A blank field of white. It's not going to happen. Anticipation turned to anxiety and then to frustration. Someone stood up and shouted.

"There isn't any leader is there?" Everyone turned in shock. First to the despondent student and then back to the television. Their faces held looks of disbelief.

In the confusion of the moment I moved slowly toward the television. I turned it off. I felt air rush back into the room. The room remained in fixed silence but for the first time I could sense people breathing. Students were withdrawing their arms from behind their chairs. I expected a flood of questions, but instead got intense quietness. I began to talk. Every word seemed to be taken and absorbed.

"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 elite. 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."

With that I switched on a rear screen projector. It quickly illuminated a white drop cloth hanging behind the television. Large numbers appeared in a countdown. The roar of the Nuremberg Rally blasted into vision. My heart was pounding. In ghostly images the history of the Third Reich paraded into the room. The discipline. The march of super race. The big lie. Arrogance, violence, terror. People being pushed into vans. The visual stench of death camps. Faces without eyes. The trials. The plea of ignorance. I was only doing my job. My job. As abruptly as it started the film froze to a halt on a single written frame. "Everyone must accept the blame. No one can claim that they didn't in some way take part."

The room stayed dark as the final footage of film flapped against the projector. I felt sick to my stomach. The room sweat and smelt like a locker room. No one moved. It was as if everyone wanted to dissect the moment, figure out what had happened. Like awakening from a dream and deep sleep, the entire room of people took one last look back into their consciousness. I waited for several minutes to let everyone catch up. Finally questions began to emerge. All of the questions probed at imaginary situations and sought to discover the meaning of this event.

In the still darkened room I began the explanation. I confessed my feeling of sickness and remorse. I told the assembly that a full explanation would take quite a while. But to start. I sensed myself moving from an introspective participant in the event toward the role of teacher. It's easier being a teacher. In objective terms I began to describe the past events.

"Through the experience of the past week we have all tasted what it was like to live and act in Nazi Germany. We learned what it felt like to create a disciplined social environment. To build a special society. Pledge allegiance to that society. Replace reason with rules. Yes, we would all have made good Germans. We would have put on the uniform. Turned our head as friends and neighbors were cursed and then persecuted. Pulled the locks shut. Worked in the "defense" plants. Burned ideas. Yes, we know in a small way what it feels like to find a hero. To grab quick solution. Feel strong and in control of destiny. We know the fear of being left out. The pleasure of doing something right and being rewarded. To be number one. To be right. Taken to an extreme we have seen and perhaps felt what these actions will lead to. We each have witnessed something over the past week. We have seen that fascism is not just something those other people did. No. it's right here. In this room. In our own personal habits and way of life. Scratch the surface and it appears. Something in all of us. We carry it like a disease. The belief that human beings are basically evil and therefore unable to act well toward each other. A belief that demands a strong leader and discipline to preserve social order. And there is something else. The act of apology."

"This is the final lesson to be experienced. This last lesson is perhaps the one of greatest importance. This lesson was the question that started our plunge in studying Nazi life. Do you remember the question? It concerned a bewilderment at the German populace claiming ignorance and non-involvement in the Nazi movement. If I remember the question, it went something like this. How could the German soldier, teacher, railroad conductor, nurse, tax collector, the average citizen, claim at the end of the Third Reich that they knew nothing of what was going on. How can people be a part of something and then claim at the demise that they were not really involved. What causes people to blank out their own history? In the next few minutes and perhaps years, you will have an opportunity to answer this question."

"If our enactment of the Fascist mentality is complete, not one of you will ever admit to being at this final Third Wave rally. Like the Germans, you will have trouble admitting to yourself that you had come this far. You will not allow your friends and parents to know that you were willing to give up individual freedom and power for the dictates of order and unseen leaders. You can't admit to being manipulated. Being a follower. To accepting the Third Wave as a way of life. You won't admit to participating in this madness. You will keep this day and this rally a secret. It's a secret I shall share with you."

I took the film from the three cameras in the room and pulled the celluloid into the exposing light. The deed was concluded. The trial was over. The Third Wave had ended. I glanced over my shoulder. Robert was crying. Students slowly rose from their chairs and without words filed into the outdoor light. I walked over to Robert and threw my arms around him. Robert was sobbing. Taking in large uncontrollable gulps of air. "It's over." It's all right."

In our consoling each other we became a rock in the stream of exiting students. Some swirled back to momentarily hold Robert and me. Others cried openly and then brushed away tears to carry on. Human beings circling and holding each other. Moving toward the door and the world outside.

For a week in the middle of a school year we had shared fully in life. And as predicted we also shared a deep secret. In the four years I taught at Cubberley High School no one ever admitted to attending the Third Wave Rally. Oh, we talked and studied our actions intently. But the rally itself. No. It was something we all wanted to forget.

An Interview with Ron Jones

Ron Jones is often asked to explain The Wave! How did it happen? Is it like the movie? Can you teach me how to do it? He has turned down inquiry from Jim Jones of Peoples Temple, to magazine editors, scholars, students, skin heads and evangelists. He is constantly asked to advise on plays about The Wave being produced around the world and respond to a web site that claims The Wave never took place.

To depict what really happened—to describe his personal feelings and the role of racism/violence in The Wave—Ron chose to perform The Wave only once before a San Francisco audience of students and Holocaust survivors! He recorded this event as a DVD and hoped it would answer all questions. And only once did he respond to a late night phone call to meet Eva Moses, a child at Auschwitz, and join her in the examination of horror. And once, only once did he take Eva Moses story to Hitler’s private chambers in Nuremburg’s Gold Room to perform a requested exorcism.

I’m not proud of The Wave but I can’t escape it! It is like a calling that just gets louder! For me The Wave is a story of ghosts. What we can be. The allure of good and evil. Choices. I’m sorry, but in the end I can’t answer your questions about The Wave. I am a gym teacher and grandparent.  Confused by today’s events. Worried.  Feeling unable to affect change.  Content to play basketball with a grandchild, listen to the songs in my head. Spitting the poetry of everyday life in quiet reverence.

I suspect, the answers you seek are closer than some distant drum beat.  It is the choices you make. The decision to include or exclude people from your life. To walk across the room to meet a stranger. The stranger in you and all of us. To trust yourself and others. To fight for justice and equality in the pulse of your life. To love your children. To be silly. Playful. Organize for a sense of community and better life for all. A life that can’t be given away to any fear or tyrant. A life that can’t be planned or explained, only appreciated.

Yes, there is good and evil in what we do. The good in me yearns for freedom.  The evil exists at the edge of road rage or a racial slur waiting to explode into a world of perfection, answers, and order. I am capable of either.”



The Third Reich


And what happens when we don't recognize the reality and turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. One might ask Martin Niemöller who was arrested on 1 July 1937 and remained imprisoned until late April 1945 Niemöller when he was transferred to Tyrol together with about 140 other prominent inmates. The SS left the prisoners behind and he was liberated by the Fifth U.S. Army on May 5, 1945. He is best known for a poem he wrote describing our human frailty in dangerous circumstance:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.




This article was written by:

John P. Reisman

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