The Third Wave

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The Third Wave was a social experiment to warn of the attraction of fascist movements. It was carried out in April 1967 by the history teacher Ron Jones (* 1941) with students at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto in the US state of California.


Ron Jones began as a history teacher and basketball coach at Cubberley High School in 1966 after studying education and international relations at Stanford . Among other things, he taught a class of mostly 15-year-old tenth graders in contemporary history . The experiment was triggered by questions from the class about a lesson about National Socialism that Jones could not answer. Two of the questions were: “How could the Germans claim that they did not know about the extermination of the Jews?” And “How could villagers, railway employees, teachers and doctors claim that they did not know about the horror in the concentration camps?” When the curriculum was advanced enough, Jones decided to spend a week answering these questions through an experiment.


The exact timing of the experiment is difficult to reconstruct due to contradicting sources. According to an edition of the school newspaper on April 21, 1967, the experiment ended on Wednesday, April 5, 1967. In an article written nine years later, Jones himself speaks of a duration of five days, starting on a Monday. Three history classes from Jones took part in the experiment, which corresponds to about 90 students. By the end, this number grew to around 200 students who were present at the closing event.

The students were organized in the experiment as The Third Wave ("The Third Wave"), were assigned roles and were subjected to restrictions; Behavioral norms were established and strictly enforced. Startled by the ease with which the students allowed themselves to be captured and manipulated, Jones abruptly stopped the experiment by showing the enthusiastic supporters of the “Third Wave” a direct comparison with youth organizations in Nazi Germany at a school meeting.

day 1

On the first day of the experiment, Jones covered the subject of discipline. After a lecture on the benefits of (self-) discipline, he introduced a new seating position in class. Students had to sit up straight with their feet flat on the floor and their hands flat in the hollow back. He practiced this sitting position by letting the students walk through the classroom and then asking them to take the sitting position as quickly as possible. More drills followed, with which he perfected the sitting position and suppressed conversations between the students. At the end of these exercises, the class was able to switch from a standing position outside the classroom to the practiced sitting position within five seconds.

After that, Jones introduced some new rules. So from now on, to answer or ask questions, students had to stand up next to the table and begin the question or answer with Mr. Jones . He also practiced this behavior with the students, additionally requiring that the answers only consist of three or fewer words. Jones was surprised at the positive effects of the new rules. For example, questions and answers were evenly distributed throughout the class - without excessive individual participation.

day 2

When Jones entered the classroom on the second day, he found the whole class already sitting quietly and practically. He then wrote on the board STRENGTH THROUGH DISCIPLINE (“Strength through Discipline”) and STRENGTH THROUGH COMMUNITY (“Strength through community”), the two guiding principles of the experiment. Through a lecture he described the positive effects of a strong sense of community to the students. To make this tangible for the students, he had the class recite the two main ideas in different constellations.

At the end of the lesson, Jones introduced a new greeting gesture to the class, bringing the crooked right hand to the left shoulder. He called this movement the Third Wave Salute because the hand position resembled a wave before it broke and the Third Wave of a group is usually the largest and last. A connection between the number and the Third Reich is not mentioned by him.

Day 3

On the third day, Jones gave the students the opportunity to stop the experiment, but no one took it. He then distributed membership cards for the movement The Third Wave ("The Third Wave"). Some of these membership cards were marked with a red X; it was these students 'responsibility to report others who did not obey Jones' rules. The central theme of this hour was collective action. He reminded students of the pain and humiliation of competition in normal classes. The competition at the school was particularly high at this time, as only good grades guaranteed transfer to the university and thus an exemption from military service in the Vietnam War . The students then expressed their enthusiasm for the new teaching structure. According to Jones, homework was also solved significantly better than before.

Jones now gave each student a specific task, such as creating a banner for the movement, preventing non-members from entering the classroom, reciting the name and address of each member by heart, or getting 20 children from the nearby elementary school to sit down convince. At this point, he also gave the students the opportunity to win over some of their friends, whom they considered trustworthy, to join the movement. New members were given a membership card and had to demonstrate their knowledge of the rules of the community in front of Jones and swear to obey these rules.

The enthusiasm for the third wave at the school grew. For example, the Headmaster gave Jones a wave greeting at a meeting, and posters were put up. The students, including those without a red X, began to denounce students who were critical of the movement. Three high-performing students, according to Jones, told their parents about the experiment. Jones was able to appease the worried rabbi of one of the parents in a phone call. In the afternoon, a student announced to Jones that he would be taking care of his personal safety as a bodyguard.

Jones was undecided in his assessment that evening. On the one hand, the Third Wave integrated many previous outsiders, on the other hand he was aware of the bullying of non-members of the Third Wave by members.

Day 4

As the experiment increased, Jones' doubts grew. Not only did he fear negative consequences for his students, but he also noticed that for himself the boundaries between pretending to be a dictator and being a dictator were beginning to disappear. However, he did not want to end the experiment with a bang, as he feared negative effects on the psyche of individual students. On the night of the fourth day of the experiment, the father of a schoolboy broke into the classroom and ransacked it. Found at the door by Jones that morning, he explained himself through his past as a World War II veteran .

On the fourth day, Jones placed pride at the center of his lesson. He also told the students that they were part of a nationwide movement of students who had been recruited and trained by their teachers to bring about political change. He asked the three students who were critical of the experiment to leave the classroom and had them escorted to the library. He then announced a gathering of all local Third Wave members at noon the following day. At this meeting, a national presidential candidate was to announce the movement's program. Jones insisted that only members attend the meeting.

Day 5

Friends of Jones posed as photographers and journalists to give the occasion more meaning. At the beginning of the meeting, he had the students perform the greeting of the wave several times and repeat the motto “Strength through Discipline”. He then switched on the television screen at the front of the room without the expected image of a leader of the movement appearing. After several minutes, a student shouted across the room: “There isn't any leader, is there?” ("There is no leader, is there?"). Jones now turned off the television and explained to the students how he had manipulated them and that the national movement was just an invention on his part. On a film projector, he showed images from the Nazi party rally and other scenes from the Third Reich in order to make clear to the students the parallels between their behavior and those of the people of the Third Reich.

Medial and artistic implementation

  • In 1972 Jones wrote a short article entitled The Third Wave .
  • In 1981 the film Die Welle was made for US television .
  • Also in 1981 Morton Rhue worked on the screenplay of the film for the novel of the same name (English. The Third Wave. No Substitute for Madness: A Teacher, His Kids, and the Lessons of Real Life ). The German translation by Hans-Georg Noack was published in 1984 under the title Die Welle. Report of a teaching attempt that went too far.
  • In 2000 Margaret Gutmann and Jens Blockwitz performed a musical (music theater piece) called The Third Wave in Berlin and Potsdam with the approval of Jones. In the spring of 2008, the Canadian musical The Wave was played in German for the first time in Greiz , Thuringia . It was written by Olaf Pyttlik, an emigrated German.
  • In 2008, a film called Die Welle , directed by Dennis Gansel , was released, based on the short story by Ron Jones, but relocated the plot to modern Germany. A novel by the German writer Kerstin Winter was published for this film with the title Die Welle .
  • Wir sind die Welle is a German-language youth drama series from 2019, loosely based on the novel Die Welle von Rhue from 1981.

See also


  • Ron Jones: No Substitute for Madness: A Teacher, His Kids, and the Lessons of Real Life. Iceland Pr. 1981, ISBN 0-933-28006-8 .
  • Ralph Erbar: "Power through Discipline". The film “The Wave” in history class . In: Praxis Geschichte 6/1992 (film - history - teaching), pp. 18–21.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Sam Whiting: In 'The Wave,' ex-teacher Ron Jones looks back., January 30, 2010, accessed April 30, 2017 .
  2. a b Mark Hancock: FAQ from, accessed April 30, 2017 .
  3. Christian Hambrecht: Nazis for five days., March 11, 2008, accessed April 30, 2017 .
  4. ^ Ron Jones: The Third Wave., 1976, accessed April 30, 2017 .
  5. ^ Bill Klink: 'Third Wave' presents inside look into Fascism. Cubberly Senior High School: The Catamount, April 21, 1967, p. 3 , accessed May 5, 2017 .
  6. The third wave, 1967: an account Ron Jones, 1972 (last accessed October 3, 2019)