The Wave, by Todd Strasser, is the story of Gordon High School, a regular American institution of lockers and bells, dreaded phys ed and social cliques. The novel takes place in the early 1970s, separated by years and oceans from the genocide of World War II. As they learn about the Holocaust in history class, everyone acknowledges that indeed, the Holocaust was horrible and despicable, but they all are equally certain that something like that could never happen in present day. Concerned with this complacency, the history teacher, Mr. Ross, sets out to show his students that a situation like Nazi Germany is never out of reach.
His experiment begins harmlessly enough; students must stand at attention before answering a question in class and say “Mr. Ross,” crisply before speaking. But gradually the experiment grows, there is a salute and a sign and the new way of acting carries beyond the classroom. Soon this experiment, called The Wave, has spread through the school, a special society in which all are strong, disciplined, equal.
Yet with the power and the unity of the Wave comes negative aspects, as well. Gradually, as more and more students join the Wave, they begin to get intoxicated with the mass feeling of brotherhood and security among their fellow Wave members. To help foster this bond, Mr. Ross organizes rallies and meetings only for Wave members, and in a surprisingly short amount of time the majority of the school is fully on board with the Wave and all that it stands for. Although once a member, all are supposedly equal and accepted, those few students who resist the Waves begin to experience negative repercussions. They are separated from their friends as they are not allowed at Wave rallies or lunches, and Wave members quickly take it upon themselves to ban non-Wave members from school events like sports games. They are ridiculed, isolated, even beaten. All those who are not part of the Wave are enemies to it, and a school that was once simply a school has become the headquarters of this hungry new regime.
The Wave is a terrifying picture of the tangibility of Nazi Germany. We find that the Nazis were not simply a huge concentration of bigoted, wicked people, but, dare I say it, people like us who went horribly wrong? In the Wave, we see how it is to get swept up in the tantalizing and reassuring world of mindlessness. Members of both the Nazi party and the Wave were freed of their obligation to make choices. They did not have to be different. And because they were human, fallible, swayable, they fell into the Nazi mold and became monsters, committing unspeakable acts of evil.
And that is why the Wave is so frightening. It shows us how susceptible even we are to falling into something like Nazi-hood or the Wave. Hitler with the Third Reich and Mr. Ross, the history teacher with the Wave, both designed their regimes to play into human vulnerabilities, to exploit them and use them to turn people blind and unfailingly obedient.
The Wave is short, no more than a compact 125 pages, but within those pages is a startling and incredible read. I’ve read the novella several times, and each time the blow is just as strong, just as incredible, and just as terrifying. It is well written and well researched, based off a 1980 classroom experiment much like the one depicted in the book. It is scary to read but absolutely riveting, and essential for us to read if we are to understand the lure of mindless unity and protect ourselves against it. The Wave is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have ever read.