The Cruel Experiment That Turned Teenagers Into Nazis

“We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. [. . .] None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.” —Vaclav Havel

In A Nutshell

In 1967, a high school history class in California became the lab rats of an experiment to study the rise of Nazism. Their teacher called the group “The Third Wave,” even going so far as to punish an improper sitting posture. Within days, they had a motto, flag, salute, and began to view themselves as an exclusive, elite group. The experiment was killed by the fifth day, as the students were beginning to spiral out of control and becoming aggressive.

The Whole Bushel

You’re likely familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment: Twenty-four young men were chosen to take part, and each was randomly assigned the role of either guard or inmate. Scheduled to last one or two weeks, the experiment was called off after just six days, as those given the guard roles had let the power go to their heads and become extremely abusive towards the “prisoners.” The Third Wave experiment was similar, but is considerably less well-known.

In 1967, Ron Jones was teaching his class about what life was like in Germany leading up to World War II. When one student asked how so many people could blindly obey such a regime, he decided that a demonstration would be the best answer. He implemented a mandatory pose for students at their desk: sitting up straight, hands flat on the desk, feet flat on the ground, parallel to one another, knees at right angles, and more. The class would do drills and have to be sitting correctly within five seconds. He then wanted to see how far he could take the experiment. Students were required to stand to the side of their desk and begin with “Mr. Jones” each time they addressed him. Answers to questions were to be a maximum of three words. At first the class improved, but then things went too far.

On Day Two, they gave themselves a motto: “Strength Through Discipline. Strength Through Community.” The class was brought up to the front in pairs to chant the phrase until everyone was involved. Then Jones developed their salute: The right hand was cupped and brought up to almost touch the right shoulder. This was the titular “Third Wave,” meant to represent how the final wave in a trio is the strongest, although its similarity to “The Third Reich” can’t be ignored. Students were ordered to, and did, give the salute anytime they saw one another, even outside of class. The next day, membership was made optional, and everyone opted to stay. In fact, 13 students cut class to join the original 30, and membership cards were then issued. Three students were selected to police the rest, and everyone was encouraged to ensure that all members of the Third Wave were complying with the growing number of rules at all times. They were also instructed to prevent outsiders from entering the room. For an outsider to join, they had to be recommended by a member and swear allegiance to the Third Wave. This led to bullying. Members used threats to recruit some students, and exclude others. They also began ratting each other out for not following the rules. One well-built student became the teacher’s personal bodyguard. Other teachers began to get frustrated, as an additional 50 members of the Third Wave meant that students were skipping their assigned classes. Parents were also starting to get worried, and one father (who had been a prisoner of war in Germany) broke in and destroyed the room.

Jones became worried and confused as to what he should do next. On Thursday, he decided to make a surprise (and false) announcement: That the Third Wave was part of a national government program to recruit young people to the army. A few girls who were not faithful enough were removed by four “guards,” while the rest were told that they should show up the following day to sign up, meet the press, and view a presidential candidate announce the Third Wave program on live TV. Over 200 students showed up. They did their regular chant and salute, before the lights were turned off and the TV was turned on. Everyone sat watching the screen, waiting for the announcement in strict silence. They mindlessly watched a blank screen for a few minutes, until one student was brave enough to ask if it was fake. Jones explained that it was all a lie, something that had started as a lesson and was fueled by his own curiosity. The students were reprimanded for not recognizing that they were behaving exactly like the Nazis they were in the middle of studying. Apart from the firsthand malice experienced that week, being punished for improper conduct, converted or excluded, telling on others or being told on, many of the students were upset when they found out it was all a lie. Some even cried. They had been played, acted foolishly, changed how they went about their daily lives, gone power-mad, and now everything they had ingrained in themselves was killed without warning.

Such an experiment would never be deemed ethical enough to carry out today, and Jones has said that the memories of what he did would continue to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Show Me The Proof

Political Philosophy: All That Matters, Johanna Oksala
The third wave, 1967: an account—Ron Jones

  • Marozia

    An interesting experiment in mind control and personalities. It’s as easy as what Ron Jones taught.

  • Arjan Hut

    What happened next? Did they have to finish those kids off?

  • Rijul Ballal

    How fragile ethics can be…

  • Hadeskabir

    They still do this! It’s called Boy Scouts! There’s a Boy Scout center next my house, every week-end I see them marching and singing. They are the faggot version of the Nazis.

    • adamhs

      You sound upset because they kicked you out for being gay. Your bitter comment speaks volumes.

      • Chris

        I’m surprised the most upvoted comment is one with ‘faggot’ in it, though I’m not sue if your using it to exemplify the boy scouts’ views on gays, or if you’re being homophobic

        • Hadeskabir

          It was a pun for the fact that the boy scouts were for a long time a homophobic group.

          • Robert Downey

            A pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play that suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect

          • Hadeskabir

            Thanks, humans dictionary!

          • lonelydisco

            Paronomasia is the official term! How oddly astounding. This made my hour.

          • lonelydisco

            Pun?!

        • Enigmaling

          Just an example of how people will follow someone who has the same bias as they do. No matter how disturbing the wording may be. They inherently know ‘faggot’ isn’t a nice word, but it fits their views at the time, so they ignore common sense, and go with the strongest emotion felt. The comment sections are full of these types of examples. It’s interesting if you can be objective.

      • Hadeskabir

        Yeah, I’m gay. So come here honey and give me one big kiss on my ass.

    • ZAallDay85

      You sounded very witty and almost intelligent until you refered to them as “faggot version of Nazis”, considering gays were persecuted along with Jewish people and many other minorities. Please don’t ruin a site for learning and knowledge be sullied and ruined by your blind bigotry and profane language. Thanks.

      • Hadeskabir

        It was a joke regarding the fact that the boy scouts were a homophobic group.

    • WhiteExodus

      I wonder how many of those kids got raped by park ranger or scout captain……

      • Hadeskabir

        I believe the answer is : Too many of them.

    • SuperWeapons

      fuck you

  • Brp Goyo

    Eleven subjects to go and I’m a World History teacher. *cue devious music*

  • Akatosh

    Gas: your solution to unsolvable problems since 1939

  • IceBreaker

    This goes to show that a simple yet well defined meme will spread like wild fire and it will take advantage of our tribal tendencies to quickly distinguish people into “us” and “them”.

    And we all hate “them”, of course.

  • Anthony Burroughs

    Six days? Bullshit. It took Hitler and the Nazis years to rise to power… These kids took it this seriously and developed all of these “bylaws” in only six days? Just doesn’t sound very believeable to me.

    • Nomsheep

      They were kids. The Stanford Prison Experiment got that bad that fast as well.

    • Chris

      Firstly, it was 5 days. Strange that you overestimated, as the brevity of it was your whole point. Secondly, these were kids, not a whole society. Within a week of high school, everyone is more or less established in their cliques. They want to belong somewhere, and this experiment just represents that. Nothing hard to believe about it

    • Robert Downey

      It’s a microcosm of society, remember hitler had to take over a government, battle completing forces (commies, liberals etc), these kids did not. This experiment has been study and document fairly heavily, maybe do a quick google search read some of the documents watch the doco, hell contact some of the people involved, but please don’t just dismiss thing out of hand. I am sure there were lots of Germanies who had similar thought about the rise of Nazism, a facesit could take control of our country, if all these people feel the same it can’t be wrong etc, even the kids of the 3rd wave thought it was unbelievable that such a thing could happen.

  • UN

    Hail Mr Jones

  • LEDZEPPWIN

    The third Reich wasn’t a bunch of kids. They made grown ass decisions to act like pieces of shit and the world called them on it

    • Robert Downey

      Wasn’t only a bunch of kids, to be more correct. The Nazis targeted and indoctrinated children, teens and young adults. The Hitler youth, Reichserziehungsministerium etc, get them indoctrinated have them inform on teacher, relatives even their own parents anyone not spurting the propaganda. Most regimes do similar, the pledge of allegiance?

  • blikesmne

    There’s a movie that was inspired by this called ‘The Wave’. Kinda cheesy with some of the subplots, a decent flick that can kill 90 minutes. Last I checked it was on Netflix.

    • Karmala

      I definitely had to watch that when I was at school. I’m pretty sure there was also a book called the wave.

  • Nick Mulgrave

    This is similar to the September 11th experiment. After the destruction of half a dozen buildings. A nation willingly sent their children to invade and die in random countries at the whim of political leaders, gave away their rights to privacy to live in a electronic police state while critisizing other countries for not supporting ‘freedom’.

    • Michelle Sparks-Patterson

      Well put

  • Fakir Smith

    A lot like obama followers. All they need is a salute. Concentration camps for “cons” and Christians next. You laugh, we are so close it’s not even funny. They all already think the GOP is the reason none of his ideas are working. Just like how hitler blamed Jews. Funny how history repeats itself especially when our public education system is so bad barely anyone knows history. Hope and change.

    • Robert Downey

      What freedom to express of an opinion opposite to Obama’s policies ideals etc, has the current administration taken away? Has he changed educational curriculums to indoctrinate the youth to the leftist ideals? Are his follower attacking tea party members in the street, intimidating them to become democrats? I ask cause i am not american but want a clearer picture of what you feel is happen, or if this is just hyperbole.

      • lonelydisco

        I only take the comments about Obama being incompetent seriously, not because I necessarily agree there. Comments like his (a Fakir, I believe, is male) are ludicrous.

        It’s not simply hyperbolic, it is insane.

  • edzyl blane

    So that’s how i can take over the globe.

  • Ryan Samuels

    I see no issue with this kind of behaviour.

  • lbatfish

    I’m hoping that Ron Jones is no relation to Jim Jones (of People’s Temple / Guyana / kool-aid fame).

  • lbatfish

    For other takes on the same sort of “kids gone wild” thing, check out “Lord of the Flies” and “Butterfly Revolution”. Especially the latter.

    • Gamerguy1313

      Wasn’t *Lord of the Flies* a novel following the “Wild Child” trend? That trend isn’t really connected to this, but it’s an interesting trend nonetheless.

      • lbatfish

        “Lord of the Flies” was written by Willliam Golding in 1954, with the first movie (usually known as
        “the good one”) being shot in 1963 and the next one (usually known as “the newer one”) in 1990.

        The movie “Wild Child” was shot in 1970, and was based on a 1966 Le Monde article about feral children. So “Lord of the Flies” came first, but because the two plots were quite different (feral boy exiting savagery vs, schoolboys entering savagery), I don’t think either of them had much influence on the other.

        • Gamerguy1313

          The Wild Child theme isn’t so much “feral boy exiting savagery” as much as a rare chance for psychologists to see a near pure example for the nature vs nurture debate (a feral child is indeed taught to act more “civilized” to varying degrees of success however).

  • pronto

    In 1981,ABC made the TV-movie The Wave as part of their Afternoon School Specials TV series. However,they changed their minds & aired TW in prime time under ABC’s Theater for Young Americans. Bruce Davison portrayed the teacher who created the experiment for his class. It is supposed to be based upon a high school class in Palo Alto,California in April of 1969. I remember watching this years ago.Chilling to see that creating a fanatical mindset among high school students that mirrored what took place in Nazi Germany was so easy do accomplish.

  • dan

    sounds like the teabaggers

    • lonelydisco

      You could’ve sent this to the troll up there about Obama, it could’ve been funny.

  • Felipe Lisbôa

    There is a awesome film based on this story. It’s called “The Wave” and was released in 2008 and, interestingly, it’s a german film. It’s an amazing example of how easy it is to brainwash people and why it’s important to be always a little skeptical about everything. Why the author didn’t mention the film, by the way?

  • Cassandra Oakdown

    Fun fact, I tried to convince a teacher of mine to recreate this experiment in high school. I got rejected, of course.