Teacher discovers dangerous allure fascism can have

Revealing items from an exhibitionistic industry

Scientologists entrench

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/January 16, 2009

By Pierre Ruhe

In 1967, in the affluent Bay Area suburb of Palo Alto, a well-meaning teacher converted his world history class into fascists.

It was easy. The teacher, Ron Jones, used textbook psychology, had the students paint slogans on cardboard - "Strength through Discipline" - and repeated the mantra that the class was superior to the rest of the school.

Within five days, Jones' experiment achieved its aim. The students voluntarily surrendered their rights in the classroom. They even recruited other kids into the exhilarating "Third Wave" movement that would change the world.

Soon after, Jones, now 68, wrote a short narrative about the episode, and later turned it into an "ABC Afterschool Special," which led to a popular German-language novel.

Last year, German director Dennis Gansel made "The Wave" ("Die Welle") into a film, set in today's Berlin. It's one of this year's showings at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

We spoke with Jones about his original experiment and the new German film version.

Q: What got you started role-playing lessons from history?

A: I was a young teacher, and it was the '60s. For capitalism I'd have them bring things to sell, for apartheid they couldn't use certain bathrooms or walk certain hallways. This experiment was different, because it played on their sense of idealism and their need to belong to something.

Q: That's a dark side of human nature; as social animals we're wired to join groups and follow the tribe.

A: That's it, although at first I couldn't see the ramifications. I liked the order. But by the end of the week, I told them a major political candidate would visit. On Friday, I showed film clips of Hitler. I told them we were as vulnerable as the Germans we'd been studying.

Q: Is the movie version for wide release?

A: No, Sony owns the rights and hasn't planned to release it in the U.S., although it was at Sundance in 2008. [Director] Dennis Gansel sets the story in Berlin, and it taps the same fantasies and energies that young people will always have. The film flirts with the perverted idea of making the world a better place through fascism. The issue is, when do you stand up? When do you listen to people whose answers are different from yours?

"The Wave." Sunday, Monday and January 25th. At various theaters. Ron Jones and German history experts will speak at the Saturday and Sunday screenings.

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