Did you ever hear about the Californian high school teacher who wanted to teach his class how the German people accepted Hitler as their leader, so he created a Nazi-like movement at his school in just 5 days? While browsing through these jarring post WWII photographs of Berlin, one of my favourite European cities, I couldn’t help but think about that story.
In 1967, Ron Jones was teaching high school history at Cubberly High in Palo Alto California. His class was having trouble understanding how the German populace could have accepted the actions of the Nazi regime during the war, so he came up with an experiment. Within five days, his “experiment” quickly turned into a movement that was spiralling out of control. He called it, “The Third Wave”.
In order to demonstrate the appeal of fascism, Mr. Jones conducted a series of simple disciplinary exercises in his classroom, starting with extensive drilling of his class on how to sit properly. Students were also told to stand when asking questions and to do it in three words or less. Mimicking the characteristics of the Nazi movement, he emerged as an authoritarian figure who was dramatically improving the efficiency of his class.
By the third day, all of the students were showing vast improvement in their academic skills and motivation. They were issued members cards and assigned special assignments. Tasks included designing “Third Wave” banners and stopping non-members from entering the class. By the third day, the experiment had grown much larger than the classroom, with over 200 participants.
He was taken aback when students started reporting the failures of fellow members to follow the rules.
On the fourth day, students becoming increasingly loyal to the project. Jones was ready to terminate after his movement had grown much faster than he’d expected. Before doing so, he ordered the students to attend a rally the following day, where he promised the The Third Wave would be announced as part of a nationwide movement and a presidential candidate would make a televised address as their leader.
When students arrived for the rally the next day at school, they were presented with a blank television set. They waited for something to appear on the empty channel until Mr. Jones came forward to reveal the true nature of the movement. He confessed that they had been part of an experiment on fascism in which they had inadvertedly created a sense of a superior community very much like the one created in Nazi Germany.
To end the experiment, he then played a film about the Nazi regime.
Just in case we were wondering how something like this can happen. Easily.
Photostory by William Vandervert from the LIFE archives