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The Third Wave

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Title: The Third Wave  
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Collection: Nazism, Palo Alto, California, Psychology Experiments, Social Psychology
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The Third Wave

The Third Wave was an experimental social movement created by high school history teacher Ron Jones to explain how the German populace could accept the actions of the Nazi regime during the Second World War.[1][2] While he taught his students about Nazi Germany during his "Contemporary World History" class, Jones found it difficult to explain how the German people could accept the actions of the Nazis, and decided to create a social movement as a demonstration of the appeal of fascism. 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 movement 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. Jones told his students of the true nature of the movement as an experiment in fascism, and presented to them a short film discussing the actions of Nazi Germany.[3]


  • Background to the Third Wave experiment 1
  • Chronology 2
    • First day 2.1
    • Second day 2.2
    • Third day 2.3
    • Fourth day 2.4
    • Fifth and last day 2.5
  • Afterwards 3
    • Dramatizations 3.1
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Background to the Third Wave experiment

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.[3] Jones started a movement called "The Third Wave" and told his students that the movement aimed to eliminate democracy.[1] The idea that democracy emphasizes individuality was considered as a drawback of democracy, and Jones emphasized this main point of the movement in its motto: "Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride."[1]

The experiment was not well documented at the time. Of contemporary sources, the experiment is only mentioned in the Cubberley High School student newspaper, The Cubberley Catamount. It is only briefly mentioned in two issues,[4][5] and one more issue of the paper has a longer article about this experiment at its conclusion.[1] Jones himself wrote a detailed account of the experiment some nine years afterwards[3] and more articles about the experiment followed, including some interviews with Jones and the original students.[2]


First day

Jones writes that he started the first day of the experiment with simple things such as proper seating and extensively drilling the students.[3] 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".[3]

Second day

On the second day, he managed to meld his history class into a group with a supreme sense of discipline and community.[3] 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. The name may also be related to the "Third Reich", a synonym for Nazi Germany. [3][6] Jones made up a salute resembling that of the Nazi regime[1] and ordered class members to salute each other even outside the class. They all complied with this command.[3]

Third day

The experiment took on a life of its own, with students from all over the school joining in: on the third day, the class expanded from initial 30 students to 43 attendees. All of the students showed drastic improvement in their academic skills and tremendous motivation. All of the students 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.[3] Jones was surprised that some of the students started reporting to him when other members of the movement failed to abide by the rules.[3]

Fourth day

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 outstanding. He announced to the participants that this movement was a part of a nationwide movement and that on the next day a presidential candidate of the Third Wave would publicly announce its existence. Jones ordered students to attend a noon rally on Friday to witness the announcement.[3]

Fifth and last day

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.[3]


On the 10th of October 2010, a film documentary, Lesson Plan, retelling the story of the Third Wave through interviews with the original students and teacher, debuted at the Mill Valley Film Festival.[7] It was produced by Philip Neel, one of Jones's own former students.


The events of the experiment were adapted into a 1981 TV special, The Wave, and a young-adult novelization by Todd Strasser (who used the pen name "Morton Rhue" in Europe). The 2008 German film Die Welle transferred the experiment to a modern-day German classroom to critical acclaim.

In 2010, Jones staged a musical called The Wave, written with some of the students in the class.[8]

See also


^ In,[4] which was published on Friday, April 7, reports of "strange happenings in Mr. Jones' [...] classes" are mentioned without further detail, which confirms that the movement was active, but not yet finished in the week starting on April 3, 1967. In,[1] published on April 21, the experiment is dated "two weeks ago", which also puts the experiment in the first week of April – in fact, it calls out "...Wednesday, April 5, the last day of the movement."


  1. ^ a b c d e f
  2. ^ a b [2]
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Ron Jones's 2-part essay about The Third Wave (Internet Archive)
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ This tradition is found e.g. in Tennyson's The Coming of Arthur.
  7. ^
  8. ^

Further reading

  • Klink, Bill. April 21, 1967. "The Third Wave presents inside look at Fascism", The Cubberley Catamount, Volume 11, No. 14, Page 3. (News article in Cubberley student newspaper, following the Third Wave Rally, including details regarding the rally and names of some individuals involved.)
  • Leler, Robin and Sakuma, Bernice. April 7, 1967. The Cubberley Catamount, Volume 11, No. 13, Page 2. Column entitled "Through the Tiger Eye". (Article in Cubberley student newspaper makes brief reference to the events of the "Third Wave".)
  • Strasser, T. 1981. The Wave. New York: Dell Publishing Co.
  • Williams, Sylvia Berry. 1970. Hassling. New York: Little, Brown. Page 51 in Chapter 7 ("A Bill of Particulars on the USM").

External links

  • The original essay by Jones (1976)
  • Lesson Plan – Third Wave documentary film, as told by the original Third Wave students and teacher
  • Official website – story history, FAQ and links by original Third Wave students
  • – includes information about novel, stage and screen adaptations of the story
  • "Nazis für fünf Tage" ("Nazis for five days") in Der Spiegel (German)
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