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We Are the Wave Netflix True Story — The Real High School Experiment on Nazi Germany Behind the New Series
The german series We Are the Wave, available on Netflix, is more than a drama about teenage rebellion. The series has historical roots that draw loosely from Morton Rhue’s novel The Wave, which fictionalized the true account of a ’60s high school social experiment gone-wrong that re-enacted the roots of Nazi Germany. For those of you impassioned by wave logos spray-painted on high school facades (aren’t we all?), here’s the gist.
What Is the Netflix Show About?
We Are the Wave follows Tristan, a scruffy new kid from juvy, as he sparks a friendship with some unlikely cohorts: prim straight-A student Lea, a skater named Rahim, meek Zazie moonlighting as the mean girls’ favorite punching bag, and Hagen, the bungling recluse. Each of them faces their own daily battles. There’s the biohazardous paper factory that polluted Hagen’s family land, the right-wing extremists that target Rahim on a daily basis, and the very students that perpetuate a climate of racism and exclusion in their high school. Tristan, with his devil-may-care attitude, incites his new friends to fight back against a system that proves eternally demoralizing.
The protests start out relatively harmless. They parade around a supermarket enrobed in the plastic packaging of the merchandize and steal from fashion retailers who burn rather than donate unsold garments so the needy won’t don designer clothes. But as more people join The Wave, their symbolic protests against unbridled capitalism and environmental hazards take a dark turn. Suddenly they’re smashing neo-nazis’ cars, destroying paper factories, and poisoning the leader of the extreme right.
What Was The Real Third Wave?
The series draws from the ’60s social experiment The Third Wave, reminiscent of the PTSD-inducing Stanford Prison Experiment where a professor divided students into ‘inmates’ and ‘prison officers, sticking them in a dorm basement for a few days to shed light on the psychological effects of perceived power. The Third Wave was like a Nazified Stanford Prison Experiment. Instead of swastikas and Nazis, they had sea waves and prepubescent teenagers.
It began at Palo Alto’s Cubberley High School in 1967 when a student asked his history teacher how the Germans were able to accept the Nazi regime. Ron Jones was a beloved sophomore history teacher known for his unorthodox teaching methods. He invited controversial guest speakers like klansmen and communists, made the mostly-white students use different toilets in simulations of Apartheid, and he directed his students to come up with ten arguments for and against the Vietnam War. And so when Jones promised his students that they would all get A’s if they followed a new exercise, they embraced the game wholeheartedly.
It wasn’t until Ron Jones published an account of his experience a few years later that the experiment reached the public eye. According to Jones, what started out as a one day exercise with him writing “Strength Through Discipline” on the board and explaining the importance of straight posture unraveled into a community with its own salute, insignia, banners, and a dog-eat-dog culture of intimidation. According to the 2010 documentary Lesson Plan, which gathered former students’ accounts of the experiment, an atmosphere of exclusion, hubris, and fear took hold. Those who didn’t join feared being shunned or called out by their fellow classmates. Students from multiple grades and two nearby schools began cutting class to attend Mr. Jones’s meetings until his classroom overflowed. “The Third Wave,” which had started out as a game amongst less than 30 sophomores, metastasized into a movement with at least 200 students across the city.
On the fifth day of the exercise, Mr. Jones gathered students in a rally where they awaited the announcement of their party leader on nationalized TV. He unveiled the gimmick by playing footage of Hitler and the Nuremberg Rally instead. It should not come as a surprise that our dear Mr. Jones was also an actor, with a refined taste for theatrics. “You are no better or worse,” he claims to have said, “than the German Nazis we have been studying.” Because of the controversial—though effective—teaching method, Jones was fired, and never able to find a teaching job in the U.S., according to the documentary.
Despite its unorthodox execution, The Third Wave had significant impact on various students. Former student Nancy West said she found the experiment ‘enlightening’ because it made her realize that anyone could have done what the Germans did, while Mark Hancock finds himself since then wary of anyone overzealous about a cause or a charismatic leader. The Third Wave experiment brought to light our creepy reverence for authority, shedding harrowing Milgram-esque insight into how easily we assuage moral conflict and diffuse responsibility when we’re commanded to “follow orders.” It also showcased our intrinsic desire to conform and belong, lest we be a lone wolf withering in an un-sexy solitude.
How Does the Netflix Series Incorporate the Real Experiment?
Netflix’s We Are The Wave approaches these themes of Jones’s experiment from a different light. The color-penciled sea wave insignia that graced Cumberly’s halls is spray-painted all over the fictitious german city of Meppersfeld. Tristan and co. escape their discontent through one another in their quest to belong and find an overarching purpose. Even though they explore liberalism in lieu of Nazi-esque fascism, the results of any extreme movement prove equally disastrous. In their left-wing quest to save the environment, eschew discrimination, and mitigate capitalism, they become their own enemy as they resort to equal or more violent acts of destruction.
Netflix also adds a physical layer to the experiment’s exploration of groupthink and conformity, introducing facemasks that visualize how actions are fueled through anonymity. Just like in The Third Wave and Nazi Germany, responsibility is diffused through group mentality that thaws individuals into members of a whole where violent acts are normalized by the encouragement or acceptance of your peers. The series illustrates the dangers inherent to social movements, however positive the underlying motives may be, and reminds us that certain circumstances breed behavior we would have never thought ourselves capable of.
It makes sense that Todd Strasser’s book The Wave, inspired by this experiment, is required reading in Germany. Maybe knowing that we’re susceptible to the very events we criticize will keep us from one day drawing cute little wave doodles and proliferating an extremist political insignia.