School Turned Nazi-Like in Experiment

St. Petersburg Independent/October 2, 1981

It was just an innocent question from a curious 16-yr old student. How, he asked his history teacher, could Germans claim ignorance of the mass murder of Jews during World War II? But the teacher, Ron Jones, didn't just thumb through a history book, or refer to scribbled notes on a yellow lesson pad, for the answer. 

Instead, for one harrowing week 14 years ago, Jones showed his students exactly how the Holocaust could happen - right there in an enlightened, middle-class, predominately white high school in Palo Alto, CA.

That week, which one of Jones' former students, Steve Coniglio, stills looks back on as "exhilarating and frightening," is dramatized in a television movie, The Wave, appearing Sunday, October 4, 1981 from 7 to 8 pm EDT on ABC. Bruce Davison plays the teacher.

Jones, 41, said in an interview Thursday that he had kept the experience bottled up for years until he recently ran into Coniglio in Berkeley. They hadn't seen each other in at least 10 years. But they saluted each other - that raised cupped-hand salute that his high school used during that strange week years earlier to symbolize membership in "the Third wave," the Cubberly School equivalent of the German Nazi Party. It was then, Jones said, that he decided the time had come to tell the world what happened.

The day after the student asked the question about the Holocaust, Jones darkened the classroom. In the background he played music from Die Walkure by Richard Wagner, one of Hitler's favorite operas. "That first day was designed to put students in a restricted environment, to teach them the beauty of discipline. I wrote on the blackboard, ‘Strength through Discipline.' I had them practice cryptic, sharp answers to my questions," Jones said. Coniglio recalls that kids were under orders to "begin and end all answers with the words, ‘Mr. Jones.'" I thought it would end at that moment," Jones said, "but when I came to class the next day, I was shocked to see the students totally silent, sitting at attention. I thought I should continue with it."

The lesson on that second day was "Strength Through Community," that society is more important than the individual, that it feels good to work for something bigger than yourself. "I made the class practice marching in and out of class. I invented the class salute, a raised cupped hand. At the end of the lesson I passed out cards that meant they were members of our new party, "The Third Wave.' And I gave out three cards with an ‘X' marked on them. I told those three students they were to monitor the behavior of the others.

"My own feelings were beginning to change," said Jones. "I was excited at how learning seemed to increase in this environment. I gave a homework assignment and people seed to do it." But he was also nervous, wondering how best to get student life back to normal.

The experiment grew more and more elaborate. And it spread. By the fourth day, there were 120 kids packed into Jones' history class. The principal of the school was giving the Third Wave salute. There were banners reading "Strength Through Discipline" going up in the library and the cafeteria.

All proceeded with barely a murmur of protest from students, teachers, even parents, despite the fact that at one point students were assigned to recruit brothers and sisters into "The Third Wave." The climax occurred on the fifth day. Three hundred students packed into an auditorium, where Jones promised to introduce a new national leader who would unite the country behind "The New Wave."

"I kept looking at Mr. Jones, hoping to see a hint of a smile, so I'd know it was a game. But it wasn't there," recalled Coniglio. Jones brought in two televisions, turned them on and said, "Here is your leader." Jones then left the auditorium, doors were loudly shut, and there was just silence interrupted only by the hiss of the televisions.

"My most vivid image of the Holocaust," said Coniglio, "was imagining people led into cement block rooms, the doors slamming shut and then the gas coming in. Well, we waited two minutes, then five minutes, and no new leader appeared on the TV screen. Then I got hit with that same feeling and said I'm getting out of here."

And so the experiment ended, the lesson learned indelibly. But Jones now says his teaching methods were "dangerous, and I wouldn't recommend it."

Said Coniglio: "People may watch this show and say, "Well, I wouldn't do that. It wouldn't happen to me. "Well, come on."

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