The Wave is an insight into the ease with which fascism can come to the fore in any group of human beings, even those who live in a supposedly free and democratic society. It starts off with a teacher named Ben Ross who teaches history in a California high school. It is the end of the 1970s, after years of double-digit inflation and rising unemployment....
Mr. Ross is teaching his history class about the events that occurred in Nazi Germany, along with World War Two. One day in this unit, he shows a film that shows quite graphically the events that occurred from 1933 to 1945 - Hitler's rise, the concentration camps, the crematoria and the destruction of war. After that film, one student, Laurie Sanders, is extremely troubled and asks Mr. Ross how so many Germans could have let themselves be taken in by Adolf Hitler, and how so few resisted. Mr. Ross realizes he has no answer that is satisfactory enough.
So he does what few teachers then or now would have done - he decides to prove by example what happened. The next day he writes STRENGTH THROUGH DISCIPLINE on the blackboard. Students are required to sit up straight, and when answering questions, stand by their desks and spit out the answers, prefaced by "Mr. Ross":
"Peter, who proposed the Lend-Lease Act?"
"Mr. Ross, Roosevelt."
In that same class, students are also required to conduct drills, which involve standing up from their desks then on a signal, sitting down as fast as possible in their assigned spots. After this, students then stand in the hallway and repeat this exercise. When the bell rings, the students are still in their desks, waiting for the next command by Mr. Ross. Upon the words "class dismissed" the entire class rises at the same time and then leaves.
Students discuss the events of that day afterwards. Some say it feels like a head rush; others are more doubtful and critical. Christy, Ben Ross's wife, remarks at the ease with which the students became enthusiastic about obeying orders given by Mr. Ross.
Although doubtful about how far it can be taken safely, Mr. Ross decides to continue the "experiment". The next day, a new slogan appears on the blackboard: STRENGTH THROUGH COMMUNITY. Mr. Ross for the first time wears a suit to his class. He has the students stand beside their desks and repeat the two slogans. Then he announces that they are a movement, called "The Wave", with a symbol and a salute. The students and the teacher begin to feel a resurgence of the energy they felt last time, when Mr. Ross has them repeat the salute and the mottos until they get it right. After this class, most of the students are amazed and captivated by the energies they experienced, but Laurie in particular is at once doubtful and enthusiastic; she's not sure if the Wave is an unalloyed Good Thing.
"Membership cards" are passed out the next day, and a third slogan is added: STRENGTH THROUGH ACTION. A large poster containing a blue wave symbol is at the back of the classroom. Red X marks are on the backs of some of the cards, and it turns out the people who have those X marks are "monitors" assigned to report directly to Mr. Ross on any student in the movement who doesn't obey the rules, whatever they might be. As Mr. Ross speaks about how a group with these three slogans can achieve its objectives, Laurie feels a definite feeling of being "outside looking in" as she observes how single-mindedly enthusiastic the students are about the Wave movement. Mr. Ross then elaborates on the goals of this movement - the students are to begin bringing in new members. At the conclusion of the day's lecture on the Wave, Mr. Ross intends to continue the day's normal unit, but George, one of the students, stands up and says that he feels he is in something new, something great. Robert and Amy stand up and agree enthusiastically. At this point, Mr. Ross has the entire class salute and give the slogans. An eerie thing then happens - the class repeats the salute and slogans without prompting. Mr. Ross is momentarily shaken by this, but recovers with the thought that he started this; he can finish it.
The students who are in the Wave movement all sit together at lunch, and Laurie voices some concerns about the Wave. Robert Billings, until then something of a social outcast, takes his role as monitor very seriously and points out to Laurie that if she was really against the Wave, he'd have to report her to Mr. Ross.
As the days follow, the Wave becomes larger and larger, as more students sit in on Mr. Ross's history class/Wave indoctrination. An interesting phenomenon occurs - students begin to fall into a pattern of "rote response"; they can spit back an answer to any question, but there doesn't seem to be any real analysis of the answer. This is reflected in the verbal question/answer format as well as the written homework assignments.
Around the time the Wave reaches its height of popularity, Laurie and her father and mother begin to entertain doubts about the nature of the Wave movement; she wonders if anyone is still thinking independently, and her parents are wondering if it'll be under control for much longer. The high school principal has some of the same doubts, and requests that Mr. Ross understand the importance of keeping the "experiment" from causing harm. The student newspaper receives an anonymous unsigned letter from a student who alleges that Wave members are attempting to force people to join.
Robert Billings, by this time, has taken his role as "monitor" very seriously and asks Mr. Ross to permit him to be a bodyguard. Mr. Ross, in his role as leader, says yes. Ben Ross also notes that students are acting on "orders" assumed to come from him when in actual fact he never gave them, but instead they had evolved in peoples' minds in such a way that they subconsciously assumed them to come from him.
Wave members have by this time become so numerous that the high school pep rally has been turned into a Wave rally, but all is not well. On that day, a fight occurs and the origin of that fight appears to be a student's refusal to join the Wave movement. The initiator of that fight is led away, shouting the Wave slogans. Laurie witnesses this and is shocked. Her boyfriend, David Collins, who is the football quarterback and a senior Wave member, dismisses the matter and they get into a verbal fight. After this, Laurie, who is also editor in chief of the school newspaper, decides to publish the anonymous letter and an article on the fight that happened the day of the rally. Another event that occurs which strengthens her resolve is when she goes to attend the pep rally, a Wave monitor refuses to let her into the stands unless she does the salute.
Once the student newspaper hits the stands, reaction sets in about the possibility of the Wave movement having it's darker side, and Mr. Ross wonders if he hasn't accidentally slipped into the role of a dictator. The senior Wave members, David included, start arguing over what the Wave movement actually stands for, but don't seriously entertain thoughts of leaving.
At this stage, a crisis point has been reached. Parents who've heard about the Wave are starting to voice concerns to the high school principal, students are starting to experience tensions among themselves, Mr. Ross is not sure where he's headed or even if he's "in charge", and his wife is worried about the implications of continuing the Wave ... and yet, Mr. Ross is aware that unless he drives the point home about what the Wave has done, and how it duplicated conditions in Nazi Germany, the lesson won't be taught and the students won't understand the context of what happened during the week that "The Wave" was ascendant.
David, on that same night, has decided he needs to talk to Laurie about the Wave, make her see that it's still the right thing to be in. So he waits outside school until she has finished a party with non-Wave members of the student newspaper, and while she's walking home he accosts her, and they start arguing and they almost come to blows. At that instant, David realizes that in the name of the Wave, he nearly hurt his girlfriend even as he'd denied that the Wave could hurt anyone.
As Ben and Christy Ross are still discussing the implications of abruptly ending The Wave, David and Laurie rush over to Mr. Ross's house. They take turns telling Mr. Ross how the Wave has caused non-Wave students to be afraid they'll be forced to join, how conversations might be spied upon, and other aspects of fear and coercion involved with the Wave movement. Mr. Ross assures the two that he will end the Wave movement the next day, but cannot reveal how. He asks only that they trust him and not to say to anyone else what he is doing.
The next day, Mr. Ross begins an exercise in deception that will lead to a stunning conclusion. Following is an extract from the book:
In history class that day Ben waited until the students had come to attention. The he said, "I have a special announcement about The Wave. At five o'clock today there will be a rally in the auditorium--for Wave members only."
David smiled to himself and winked at Laurie.
"The reason for the rally is the following," Mr. Ross continued. "The Wave is not just a classroom experiment. It's much, much more than that. Unbeknownst to you, starting last week, all across the country teachers like myself have been recruiting and training a youth brigade to show the rest of the nation how to achieve a better society."
"As you know, this country has just gone through a decade in which double-digit inflation has seriously weakened the economy," Mr. Ross continued. "Unemployment has run chronically high, and the crime rate has been worse than any time in memory. Never before has the morale of the United States been so low. Unless this trend is stopped, a growing number of people, including the founders of The Wave, believe this country is doomed."
David was no longer smiling. This was not what he had expected to hear. Mr. Ross didn't seem to be ending The Wave at all. If anything, he seemed to be going more deeply into it than ever!
At this point, Mr. Ross has David and Laurie sent to the principal's office to buy time until he can expose the real reason behind why he started the Wave in the first place. Since the principal has been warned in advance that Mr. Ross will end the "experiment", he is not overly worried when David and Laurie explain what happened earlier.
As it turns out, however, Mr. Ross only needed an excuse to convince the students they should attend the rally. David and Laurie find a way into the gym, and they hear Mr. Ross's words:
From the center of the audience a single frustrated student suddenly jumped up from his seat and shouted at Mr. Ross, "There is no leader, is there?!"
Before the students had time to think about what had just happened, Ben strode to the center of the auditorium stage again. "Yes, you have a leader!" he shouted.
The auditorium was filled with gasps and exclamations of surprise as the gigantic image of Adolf Hitler appeared on the screen.
"Now listen carefully!" Ben shouted at them. "There is no National Wave Youth Movement. There is no leader. But if there was, he would have been it. Do you see what you've become? Do you see where you were headed? How far would you have gone? Take a look at your future!"
At this point, the students realize what has happened - they have followed the same first footsteps that fascists and Nazis followed - forming a group that excluded others who did not wish to join, and instead of respecting individual rights and freedoms, stated that they did not exist in the name of a larger group, led by someone who would tell them what to do and what to think and how to act.
Mr. Ross then explains that the "experiment" was all too successful, and reminds everyone that he, too, played a part in creating what it was. His closing remarks ask all students to take the lesson home with them - that no group's will should ever override their right to think independently.
On reading this book, I was struck by many similarities in behavior between the students who joined the Wave, and descriptions of the behavior of people who attended Nazi party rallies and those who ran the Nazi party. In one portion, the students gave the salute and the slogans without being prompted - this is eerily identical to how people who attended Nazi rallies would yell "Sieg Heil!" and give the Nazi salute without prompting. Another example is the same exclusion of outsiders, especially those who did not wish to join the Wave movement. Yet another is how the students easily welded themselves into a body that acted with one mind, with the orders of Mr. Ross as their driving force.
The fundamental point this book makes is not through some narrator telling us "this is what happened and this was bad", but from our own witnessing of these events as printed in the book; the point the book makes is that in a way, fascism lurks within each of us as individuals. There is an impulse that makes us sometimes shut off our minds, and accept the unproven word and will of a leader who says he has all the answers. There is an impulse that makes us identify within the group we're in, and instinctively react badly to outsiders who don't see things the way the group we're in does.
The fascism within each of us is what we struggle against every day of our lives, from the home to the political arena; from the willingness to tolerate your wife's or your husband's opinion on child discipline, to the willingness to solve problems by counting heads rather than bashing them in.