Having  been sold in more than a million copies around the world, The Wave by Todd Strasser published in 1981 under his pseudonym Morton Rhue is inspired by real events. As they study the second world war, the students of the Gordon High-School do not understand how the German people were able to tolerate such atrocities committed by the Nazi. They are convinced that an autocratic regime will never be born. Unable to bring clear responses to their questions, Ben Ross, a history professor, decides to conduct an experiment in order to help them understand the mechanisms of the nazi regime. Therefore, he created the “Wave”, an authoritarian movement axed on discipline and community. Reaching fulgurant success, the movement gets out of control rapidly. Such a synopsis is attractive in the sense that, just like the students, we are many wondering about the ease of how nazi dictatorship came to be. In fact, the Nazi’s actions were so violent and inhumane that they may often seem surreal. And yet… 

A fiction inspired by real events

The novel The Wave is inspired by the so-called “third wave” experience led by professor Ron Jones in the Palo Alto city high-school in 1967. This name was chosen by the professor in reference to the Third Reich. Confronted by his student’s questions, he came up with the idea of setting an autocratic movement that he qualified as “one of the scariest experiments ever seen in a school class” (translated from French citation). Overwhelmed by the situation, the professor decided to cease the experiment only four days after its creation. The experience was then transcripted in the school’s Journal The Catamount, and rewritten by the professor him-self in an article entitled “The Third Wave” in Whole Earth Magazines. It is difficult to draw conclusions from this experiment, as it is mainly based on testimonies and isn’t a scientific experiment. However, the questions which emerge are important: Can autocracy see the day again despite all the historical learnings? What would we have done in the student’s place? How to fight against authoritarian derivatives?

Instructions for dictatorship

If The Wave serves as a textbook in German schools in the 1990s, it’s because it constitutes a real instruction-guide to the nazi dictatorship. Through the experience led by Ben Ross, the author exposes the different mechanisms employed by the Nazi in order to establish their regime. Propaganda, repressing the opposition, predominant interest of the group on the individual, suppression of free-will: all the characteristics of a dictatorship seem to be regrouped in The Wave. The designation of instructors, whose role is to report the non-respect of the rule of the Wave, is completely arbitrary. The orders given by Ben Ross are undeniable, as well as the frequent attacks against non-members. Arbitrary, dictatorial, and violent, the Wave is a fascist movement that grows disconcertingly fast, especially when we know that the book is based on real events. The movement is even so efficient that just like Hitlerian youth, it targets the most gullible and susceptible youngsters, apt to becoming fanatics. 

Strength through discipline

The first step to the indoctrination of the students by Ben Ross consists in setting a strict discipline in class. Progressively, rules for the Wave are established. A logo, a salute, and a slogan are created. When they wish to speak, students must stand and start all of their sentences by “Mister Ross”. They must reply to the professor’s questions rapidly, almost automatically. At first, these habits amuse the students, who are rather more curious than conquered. Disguised as a game, these practices allow the professor to better manipulate the teenagers. In fact, most of them don’t even question the legitimacy of the Wave. When Ben Ross praises the virtues of discipline to the students, they can’t help but nod in agreement at the improvements in their results and their remarkable efficiency in class. Without perceiving it, they transformed into malleable robots. Typical of authoritarian movements, this masked dehumanisation takes away all kind of individuality of its members, for whom the Wave becomes a real reason for existing. 

Strength through community

Once the discipline is instilled in class, Ben Ross seeks to manipulate the students in order for them to want to follow his orders. To do so, he maintains before them an ideological discourse based on the rejection of democracy and individualism, as well as glorification of the community. To justify the restriction of individual freedoms within the Wave, he opposes them to the common good. Concretely, this community spirit is manifested by the creation of memberships. The distribution of these memberships favorises the sense of belonging for the students, but also results in the exclusion of those who don’t have membership. Therefore, the members are united by values and common goals, but also by the common enemy (the non-members). The fear of isolation being more important among youth, it is easier for them to follow the group. However, it is precisely this phenomenon that can lead them to commit or tolerate atrocities. 

In principle, individual freedoms designate a set of rights recognized to individuals by the simple fact of their existence, regardless of their gender, their social or ethnic origin, and their religious and/or political beliefs. In this story, the members of the Wave are set on an equal footing as long as they obey the rules of the community and do not criticise the movement. Those that don’t adhere are constantly tracked, intimidated, rejected, and excluded. They undergo verbal and physical violence. In short, the equality enjoyed by some students is illusory, as it rests on a superiority of the members over the non-members. 

Strength through action

Like in the film, little importance is given to the aesthetic of Todd Strasser’s work. The book is short and is easy to read, which allows for the reader to focus more on the action and make the plot more real. Once the experience is launched by their leader Ben Ross, the students are the ones who take over the movement. They actively recruit new members, adding more than 200 members in a few days, although not all of them are doing-so willingly. Many meetings are organised and everyone starts reporting offences to the rules of the Wave, despite the professor having carefully designated that task for the students of his class. The threats and intimidations towards non-members are also part of the main activities of the members. What is particularly scary in the story, is to see how three notions, a-priori positive according to society (discipline, community, and action) can lead to such a collective madness. Ben Ross’s good intentions didn’t stop the movement from losing control. Contrarily, the professor was dragged by his own experiment and gave into the temptation of abuse of power, despite being a mature, conscious, well-surrounded person. 

History, an eternal do-over?

Ben Ross’s students don’t understand the dictatorship without having fully lived it. In the beginning, the Wave is for them a simple game without any danger, a trend. They don’t take their professor seriously. As the movement progresses and grows, most students only see the positive sides, such as the feeling of belonging and equality that it creates, or the discipline that they developed in class. They don’t perceive that they are deprived of their critical thinking and free-will within the Wave. The consequences of the experience are violently threatened and the high-school is plunged into chaos. Yet, this growth in violence within the faculty doesn’t stop the members of the Wave. It’s only when Ben Ross presents Adolf Hitler as national leader of the Wave during a meeting that the students realise with horror that they’ve transformed into fascists. Does that signify that history is condemned to repeat itself?

Greek philosopher and politician Thucyclide qualified history as an “eternal do-over”. Concerning human rights, this theory seems to apply for example in genocides: the Armenian Genocide preceded the Jewish genocide, which preceded the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More recently, the Uyghur genocide in China testifies of a certain incapacity to learn from our past mistakes. In this regard, Todd Strasser’s message throughout The Wave is a message of prevention.

Authoritarian excesses, a current danger

Fascism originally referred to an authoritarian political system established in Italy in the 1920s. This regime was based on the dictatorship of a single party, the restriction of individual freedoms and strong nationalism. Today, it more generally refers to an authoritarian, dictatorial and arbitrary attitude imposed by someone on a group. While the “Third Wave” experience took place in the 1960s, authoritarian excesses are a danger today, as neo-fascist movements can develop further in the age of social networks.

Hard-hitting and moralising, this novel questions the importance of the duty to remember. To ensure that the horrors of the past are not forgotten and never tolerated again, it is important to maintain our collective memory. This is a shared responsibility, but one that falls particularly to political leaders and teachers. In this respect, La Vague is a must-read, especially for teenagers.

Having discovered this book myself at secondary school, I remember being deeply affected by its outcome on my first reading. Todd Strasser presents the constant challenge to our critical thinking as a means of combating fanaticism, barbarism and dehumanisation. He invites us to realise that fascist ideology, which rejects fundamental rights because it is liberticidal, is an ever-present threat that we must never cease to be wary of. Far from being a foregone conclusion, the fight for human rights is an ongoing struggle.

Further information…

  • Lesson-plan: the story of the Third Wave is a documentary released in 2010 containing interviews with Ron Jones, the professor behind the 1967 Third Wave experiment, and some of his students.
  • Adapted from the novel and The Third Wave, the German film The Wave (Die Welle) was released in 2008. It won several awards.
  • Stefani Kampmann is the author of a graphic novel called The Wave. Published in 2009, it is inspired by the work of Todd Strasser and its film adaptation.
  • We are the Wave, a German series inspired by the novel, has been available on Netflix since 2019.

Morton Rhue, The Wave, Dell Edition, 1981.

Translated by Gabriel Capitolo & Iman Seepersad.

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