The Wave (The Anatomy of Mass Hysteria)

A history teacher in a Californian high school finds himself unable to answer the question as to how the German population could allow the holocaust to happen. He decides to start an experiment in class… which quickly spirals out of control.

This is the premise of The Wave, a young adult novel by Morton Rhue which I found abandoned on the coffee table in the living room one evening earlier this week – Young Friend of the Elephants has this annoying habit of abandoning her books and empty tea mugs on the coffee table when she evacuates the sofa. On being questioned about it, YFE, currently aged 14, commented that the story was good but that the quality of the writing would make a moron weep; a summary with which I fully concur after reading it. (But that’s ‘young adult’ for you – it’s too moronic even for a young adult.) 

The Ellwood P. Cubberly High School Experiment

Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.

(Motto of The Third Wave)

Quality of writing apart, The Wave is actually well worth to talk about. The high school experiment did happen, in April 1967, in a middle-class neighbourhood in Palo Alto, California; the teacher’s name was Ron Jones. It’s amazing how, in mere four days, an entire class of well brought up and well-meaning teenagers brainwashed themselves into smart little Nazis, spreading their ‘movement’, The Third Wave, all across school and starting to terrorise the kids who didn’t fancy going along with it (of whom there was not a lot!).

Publicity still from the 2008 film Die Welle (The Wave)

To us who have the good fortune of living in free societies, this is indeed amazing. As a child, however, I lived in a totalitarian state (a very mild totalitarian state, admittedly) and it gave me an insight into how totalitarianism warps human behaviour.


When I was about the same age as Young Friend of the Elephants, I too asked my father the same question about the holocaust (is there anybody who didn’t ask the question at that age?). 

My father was a good communist who lived his whole life up to that point in a communist state; nevertheless, he was intelligent enough to recognise how a totalitarian state operated and how it impacted on human behaviour. He told me that when there was only one source of information and no way to check if the news it dispensed was true, when you heard the same message repeatedly for years, eventually you believed it. (Obviously, at that age, I hotly contested the idea that I would have been willing to believe anything so heinous; while my father failed to recognise that this was exactly what happened to him.)

When you then add in the fact that in a totalitarian society differing is disadvantageous if not downright dangerous…. in other words, when you add fear to human stupidity and greed, well, then you have the society of Nazi Germany.

Or the society of any totalitarian state.

It Can’t Happen Here? The Anatomy of Mass Hysteria

“But it can’t happen here.” This is a common reaction to the story of Nazi Germany and it carries a very dangerous underlying sense of superiority. It can’t happen here – we’re better than the Germans. Or at least better than the Germans were in the 1930s. We wouldn’t be brainwashed in this way.

Really? There are plenty of examples of cults that brainwashed their followers into all sorts of extreme behaviours, including suicide. But we don’t have to go that far; we don’t have to look at clearly disturbed cult followers. 

Have you not noticed how mass hysteria took hold of the world, especially our ‘civilised West’, in the recent coronavirus outbreak? Have you witnessed your colleagues in the office egging each other on with apocalyptic scenarios? Hands up if you have been panic buying yourself! 

Have you not wondered why? I mean it’s not exactly the bubonic plague, is it? (And I’m saying that as one of the ‘vulnerables’.)

We live in a society where social media is increasingly powerful: even the newspapers stopped doing proper journalism and content themselves with cheap quotes from Twitter. If Mrs Jones of Nowheretown posts a picture of an empty supermarket shelf on Facebook or if Mr Smith tweets that he couldn’t buy toilet paper in the off-licence on the corner, then The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and the BBC now presents this as news. Note – I’m not talking about the tabloid press here. I’m talking about respectable (?) news organisations who evidently think nothing is wrong with reporting unchecked information, coming from an unqualified, possibly dim-witted member of the public. Social media repeats the post, blowing it a little more out of proportion in each round, then the ‘proper’ media – without bothering to investigate it – reports it as fact, a general truth that applies everywhere in the country.

That’s disturbing enough but we need to go a little further.

A lot of people nowadays rely on social media for their information feed, sometimes exclusively. But social media works by ‘likes’. And the thing about likes is that the more you like something, the more of the same kind your feed will contain. Facebook even asks you to tell them your preferences so that they can feed you only what you want to read. As long as you stick to social media sources, you will never have to read a word that you disagree with. 

Think about the implications of that for a moment.

I’m not going to tell you what was the end of the Palo Alto experiment – you can read the book or (if you can’t stomach young adult ‘literature’) you can follow the links below.

Further Reading:
The Wave (novel) on Wikipedia
The Third Wave (experiment) on Wikipedia
The Third Wave, 1967 - an account by Ron Jones
The Wave that Changed the World (on Palo Alto Online)
Die Welle (The Wave) - film trailer with English subtitles
The Asch Conformity Experiment (Simply Psychology)

2 thoughts on “The Wave (The Anatomy of Mass Hysteria)

  1. Anthea McKennie

    It’s very interesting to note the UK government’s current mantra for combating coronavirus:

    “Stay at Home” – telling people to show “strength through discipline”
    “Protect the NHS” – telling people to show “strength through community”
    “Save Lives” – telling people to show “strength through action”

    Those of us who’ve read ‘The Wave’ can see how this mantra sounds.

    Liked by 1 person

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