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