The Third Wave

Die welle

ron jones

The Third Wave was an experimental social movement created by high school history teacher Ron Jones to demonstrate the appeal of fascism and explain how the German populace could accept the actions of the Nazi regime. Over the course of five days, Jones conducted a series of exercises in his classroom emphasizing discipline and community, intended to model certain characteristics of the Nazi movement.

As the movement grew outside his class and began to number in the hundreds, Jones began to feel that the experiment had spiraled out of control. He convinced the students to attend a rally where he claimed the announcement of a Third Wave presidential candidate would be televised. Upon their arrival, the students were presented with a blank channel and told the true nature of the movement, and shown a short film discussing the actions of Nazi Germany. The psychology involved has been extensively studied in terms of youth gang behavior and peer pressure, of which this experiment was a variant.

The experiment took place at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, during the first week of April 1967. Jones, finding himself unable to explain to his students how the German population could have claimed ignorance of the extermination of the Jewish people, decided to demonstrate it to them instead. He started a movement called ‘The Third Wave’ and told his students that he aimed to eliminate democracy. The idea that democracy emphasizes individuality was considered as a drawback, and Jones emphasized this main point of the movement in its motto: ‘Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.’ The experiment was not well documented at the time, in fact, the only surviving record of it are two short articles from the student newspaper, ‘The Cubberley Catamount.’ Jones himself wrote a detailed account of the experiment some nine years afterwards and more articles about the experiment followed, including some interviews with Jones and the original students.

Jones writes that he started the first day of the experiment with simple things such as proper seating and extensively drilling the students. He then proceeded to enforce strict classroom discipline by emerging as an authoritarian figure and dramatically improving the efficiency of the class. The first day’s session was closed with only a few rules, intending to be a one day experiment. Students had to be sitting at attention before the second bell, had to stand up to ask or answer questions and had to do it in three words or fewer, and were required to preface each remark with ‘Mr. Jones.’ On the second day, he managed to meld his history class into a group with a supreme sense of discipline and community. Jones based the name of his movement, ‘The Third Wave,’ on the supposed fact that the third in a series of waves is the strongest, an erroneous version of an actual sailing tradition that every ninth wave is the largest. Jones made up a salute resembling that of the Nazi regime and ordered class members to salute each other even outside the class. They all complied with this command.

On the third day, the experiment took on a life of its own, with students from all over the school joining in. The class expanded from 30 students to 43 and all of the students showed drastic improvement in their academic skills and tremendous motivation. They were issued a member card, and each of them received a special assignment, like designing a Third Wave Banner, stopping non-members from entering the class, or the like. Jones instructed the students on how to initiate new members, and by the end of the day the movement had over 200 participants. Jones was surprised that some of the students started reporting to him when other members of the movement failed to abide by the rules.

On Thursday, the fourth day of the experiment, Jones decided to terminate the movement because it was slipping out of his control. The students became increasingly involved in the project and their discipline and loyalty to the project was overwhelming. He announced to the participants that this classroom movement was going nationwide and that on the next day a presidential candidate of the Third Wave would publicly announce. Jones ordered students to attend a noon rally on Friday to witness the announcement. Instead of a televised address of their leader, the students were presented with an empty channel. After a few minutes of waiting, Jones announced that they had been a part of an experiment in fascism and that they all willingly created a sense of superiority like German citizens had in the period of Nazi Germany. He then played them a film about the Nazi regime to conclude the experiment.

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