Strasser's fictionalized telling of the experiment centers on history teacher Ben Ross and student/school newspaper editor Laurie Saunders. Mr. Ross seems to be a hands-on, show-don't-tell kind of teacher, and he thinks the experiment will get his students involved in the class discussion about the Holocaust. He decides to create a movement called The Wave, whose motto is "Strength Through Discipline, Strength Through Community, Strength Through Action." Surprisingly, the students obey Mr. Ross's orders, and the movement catches on.
"Now that we understand Discipline and Community," he told the class, "Action is our next lesson. Ultimately, discipline and community are meaningless without action. Discipline gives you the right to action. A disciplined group with a goal can take action to achieve it. Class, do you believe in The Wave?"While Laurie is the main character of the book, readers are introduced to several other students, who basically symbolize the nerds, the jocks, and the losers. The Wave becomes popular because all the students feel like equals and don't have to worry about trying to fit into a certain clique. The movement grows so large it encompasses the entire school, and there are membership cards, arm bands, and rallies. It becomes more than Mr. Ross ever imagined, and even he is caught up in all the excitement. Laurie is worried that the movement is going too far, and when students start being bullied to join The Wave, she realizes it must stop. But how?
There was a split-second hesitation, and then the class rose in unison and answered in what seemed like a single voice. "Mr. Ross, yes!"
Mr. Ross nodded. "Then you must take action! Never be afraid to act on what you believe. As The Wave you must act together like a well-oiled machine. Through hard work and allegiance to each other, you will learn faster and accomplish more. But only if you support one another, and only if you work together and obey the rules, can you ensure the success of The Wave." (pages 59-60)
At just 138 pages, I finished The Wave in one sitting. I was on the edge of my seat wondering how it would all play out. There wasn't much time for major character development, but Mr. Ross, Laurie, and her boyfriend, David, are fairly well developed. You can see a transformation in the other characters, but you're not really given a chance to get to know them outside of their interactions with Laurie and in class. However, it's not really necessary to get to know all the characters to understand the implications of the experiment.
It's hard to believe The Wave is based on a true story. It's not clear how much of the book is fact, but I don't think it matters. But it's important to understand that not everyone who supported Hitler was as crazy as he was. I'm not talking about the high-ranking SS officers (Himmler, Goering, Goebbels--I believe they and the others in Hitler's inner circle were just as disturbed as he was). I'm talking about the average citizen. Some of them were swept up in the excitement of the parades and rallies and Hitler's animated speeches about improving Germany's post-World War I economy. Others were too afraid to publicly oppose the Nazis. My maternal grandmother, for instance, lived in Germany during the war, and she told me many years ago before she died that they had to listen to Hitler's speeches on the radio. If they didn't listen to him, or they criticized what he said, someone could report them to the Gestapo. I'm not making excuses for these people, but The Wave shows, albeit on a much smaller scale, how easy it is for such movements to get out of hand, how easy it is for people to be manipulated.
The Wave gives you a lot to ponder, and it's one of those books that sticks with you long after you finish reading. The book shows step by step how Mr. Ross begins and perpetuates the movement, but I leave those details for you to discover on your own. The Wave is shocking, and it makes you take a closer look at your own beliefs. How strong are you to stand up for what is right, even if it means being ostracized or worse?
[The Wave was released as a movie in Germany last year. The setting was changed from the U.S. to Germany, and the experiment emerges from a discussion about whether modern Germany would allow a dictatorship.]
The Wave is the 15th book I've read for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of The Wave.