In 1961, Adolf Eichmann pled for his life before the Jerusalem District Court in Beit Ha’am and an international television audience. As the world scrutinized a man indicted for crimes against humanity, the former SS lieutenant insisted that he only a “transmitter” of fascism. Nobody believed it. 1 Eichmann pled not guilty by reason of superior orders, claiming that he was innocent because he was a soldier; he was simply following orders. The superior orders plea was the same defense pled at the Nuremburg trials 16 years earlier--it was always the same. As people across the globe watched this trial unfold, the morality of Eichmann became global spectacle and disseminated into the public domain, creating hard questions. If everyone was following orders, then who was responsible for the Holocaust, both legally and morally? Eichmann and the other chief engineers of the Holocaust committed horrible acts against humanity, yet the responsibility for genocide must diffuse beyond its officers and into the populous. How could the German people let this happen?
These were the questions Ben Ross’s students were asking at Cubberly High School in 1969, the setting for the 1981 made-for-TV movie The Wave. The film chronicles a social experiment designed by Ron Jones in a high school history class in Palo Alto, California. The Holocaust was such an unimaginable act of humanity to Mr. Ross’s history students that they could not understand how the German populous could be so naïve. “How could the Germans sit back while the Nazis slaughtered everyone people around them and say that they didn’t know anything about it?” asks Laurie, a golden-girl type dating a football player. Laurie’s question, which stumps even Mr. Ross, had already been studied extensively in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist who created a study three months after the Eichmann trial to show how an oppressive authority could force people to act in contradiction to their own will and morals.
The Milgram experiments designated a willing participant as a ‘teacher’, who would teach word pairs to a ‘learner’ in the next room. Whenever the learner answered wrong, the ‘experimenter’-an authoritative medical figure- would demand that the teacher shock the learner with increasing levels of electricity. While there was no actual shock, participants of the experiment were led to believe they were inflicting pain to the learner. 65% of the participants ended up administering enough electricity to kill someone. The coercion and authority of the experimenter overrode the participant’s own moral code. 2 Milgram’s work attempts to contextualize the mindsets of the German populous: how they could erase their history and its responsibility because, as Eichmann put it, they were only “following orders.” The Third Wave experiment in Palo Alto draws many parallels to Milgram’s studies. Mr. Ross designs a rigorous lesson of fascist structure for his students the next day based on three concepts- discipline, community, and action. Students must maintain posture, start every sentence with “Mr. Ross”, and salute each other in the hallways.
Throughout the film, Mr. Ross never gives the movement a direct purpose. He only offers strict, unbending authority. Much like the subjects in Milgram’s experiments would succumb to the authority of the experimenter, students at Cubberly High blindly become swept up in a mission with no cause. The overwhelming sense of acceptance from within the group is the driving force behind the Third Wave. Once the experiment begins, you are either in or you are out, creating a rift between the popular and the unpopular. Mr. Ross’s strict authority becomes the binding force for the Third Wave, and the experiment quickly grows out of control. Even the instructor becomes too close to his role as dictator- “it’s amazing how much more they like you,” Mr. Ross remarks to his wife, “when you make decisions for them.”
At the film’s climax, Mr. Ross holds an assembly to a now hundreds-strong group of students where supposedly a prominent politician will announce himself as the National Leader for the Third Wave on national television. The screen flips on, but remains blank. Murmurs begin to stir within the audience, and disillusionment sets in when a video of Hitler addressing the German people begins to play. By the end of the film, the students of Cubberly High learn the same lesson that Milgram’s volunteers did: how one’s free will and moral code can be suppressed by strict, unyielding authority. Mr. Ross warns his students that, “you traded your freedom for the luxury of feeling superior.” The film seeks to both show the dangers of a fascist government and champion classic American ideals of civil disobedience and independence.
Ironically, the students involved in the Palo Alto experiments would be prime candidates to be drafted for the Vietnam War a few years later. The authority of the American government was no experiment, and the draft forced many to behave beyond their own moral code for the sake of a ‘better cause.’ Even ‘democracy’ can sometimes be a little fascist I suppose.
1 Great World Trials; The Adolph Eichmann Trial, 1961. pages 332-337; 1997.
2 Milgram, Stanley (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 (4): 371–8
Josh Klimaszewski is a line cook by day and a scholar by night. He has a completely useless bachelor's degree in art history. His favorite part of the Internet is how Wikipedia does all the citation work for you. He keeps himself entertained by making comics and playing in a punk band with his scuzzy friends.