Fascism Friday – Die Welle

By skepticlawyer

In 1967, teacher Ron Jones conducted his very own Stanford Prison Experiment. Fed up with ‘yeah, whatever’ and the ever popular ‘but we wouldn’t do that’ student responses in his classes on fascism and Nazism, he introduced autocracy to his 15 year-old charges by doing it. He figured he’d need about a fortnight to get enough of the class interested in order to make the experiment worthwhile. In the end, he had to jettison the whole thing after a week. The Third Wave was simply out of control.

Apart from Jones himself, various people have treated his experiment in fascism in works of fiction. Todd Strasser (writing under the pseudonym Morton Rhue) turned Jones’ experiences into a novel; a related telemovie also came out at around the same time (1981). The most recent version is Dennis Gansel’s Die Welle (2008), which transplants events from California to an affluent Berlin suburb in the present.

Like Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram (and, indeed, Ron Jones himself), Gansel’s point is the rather confronting ‘you too are capable of fascism’. This may seem trite, but lots of people don’t want to deal with it. Even the wikipedia entry on Jones’ exercise attempts (rather futilely) to cast doubt on its factuality: the argument (made poorly, but insistently) is still that ‘it wouldn’t happen here’. This despite the fact that – apart from Jones himself – there is a mountain of evidence from various student participants. The latest – which includes the detail that Jones’ former students are currently making a documentary on their experiences – is this excellent piece from The Guardian. Interestingly, many of the reviews accuse Die Welle of unreality because Herr Wenger is able to transform his class within a week. Umm, sorry to break it to you peeps, but Jones turned his class of anti-Vietnam War all-Californian future Stanford students into fascists in a week, too.

We really don’t want to deal with the possibility that it could be us. Lots of people would really like to believe that monsters do actually exist, and that only monsters do this shit. They seem to forget that the supply of Ted Bundys in the general population is finite. The idea that people – even Nazis – are rational, and that yes, Virginia, fascism is perpetrated by normal folks like you and me takes us a damn sight further along the road to ruin than Alaska’s now famous Bridge to Nowhere. Gansel’s film (and what follows amounts to a SPOILER ALERT, so don’t keep reading unless you want to learn the ending) also deftly makes the connection between outsider status and incipient fascism. It takes a teenager of almost preternatural inner strength to reject the opportunity to lord it over the ‘mean girls’ and ‘jocks’ in a suburban high school once fascism disrupts the existing social order. Gansel’s ‘Tim’ can’t resist the blandishments of power; nor could Ron Jones’ ‘Robert’. In Gansel’s version, the Columbine-esque conclusion is entirely appropriate: it may be that the price we in the democracies pay for not having the Tims and Roberts of the world running death squads is the occasional Columbine.

The normality of those that kill in the name of the state (‘this is the state’s idea’, as Bruce Dawe puts it) is addressed squarely in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, when David Thewlis’ Commandant is so reasonable – complete with cut glass Oxbridge accent and rational motives – that it’s difficult to avoid feeling sorry for him when the film reaches its terrifying denouement. Indeed, some critics have expressed anger at Mark Herman’s use of British regional accents in lieu of authentic subtitled German or even boilerplate ‘Hollywood German’ accents (the Commandant and his family are RP, the Jewish characters have East End accents; the Commandant’s SS subordinates have Midlands accents), but to my mind the director of Brassed Off was making an adroit universalising point. In Germany this catastrophe was based on race. If we transported fascism to the UK, are you mad enough to pretend that class wouldn’t be a factor?

Critics have noted that the incipient fascist body in Die Welle includes a Turkish student – even going so far as to suggest that fascism requires racism in order to ‘work’ – thus making the film implausible. This is bollocks. Class will do fine, as will any other social marker – religion, culture, musical taste, preferred recreational activity, dress.  Anyone who’s ever spent time in a school knows that social markers and outgroups are many and varied indeed. Of course, for fascism to take off in a classroom the quality of the teacher is key: Herr Wenger – following Mr Jones – is a first-class teacher. He may be a ‘PE dumb-guy’, but he has great classroom management skills. Other members of stuff pop pills at the start of the week in order to be able to face their undisciplined charges. Herr Wenger doesn’t have to; student accounts indicate that Mr Jones didn’t have to, either. Hitler was a great speaker; perhaps autocratic politics is like teaching – to a degree that’s pretty discomforting.

In my on-again, off-again six years in the classroom, I was one of those teachers who could do the classroom management thingy. I tried to work out how I did it, once – and failed utterly. There was a guy down the corridor who’d been teaching for twenty years and the same kids who handed all their work in on time for me and made my lessons inspiring made him a nervous wreck. I actually taught Strasser’s novel to a year 11 group and we discussed this phenomenon. My students suggested that I gave a shit, and that’s why they were putty in my hands. This was convenient and buttered my ego, but wasn’t true. On the weekends, my colleague down the corridor would ring me fretting about kids who’d gone off the rails, who were smoking crack down at the speedway. I didn’t give a shit; I went rock-climbing on the weekends and would invent lesson plans in the 40 minutes it took me to pushbike to work on Monday mornings. The only time teaching colonised the Real Estate of my mind was when I was in the classroom. And this was Logan-Beaudesert, notoriously among Queensland’s most difficult postings – along with places like Arukun and the Far West. No, caring wasn’t it, although it would be nice if that were true. There was something else going on, and it convinced me that teaching is one of the black arts. So is politics.

In the lead-up to the film’s finale, one of the students makes the point that not everything about Die Welle was bad. Students put aside race and class and cooperated with each other; the swift assisted the slow, the strong supported the weak. Everybody’s grades improved. Herr Wenger – rather sadly – has to make the point that you can’t save the good things, that all exercises in collectivism inevitably go down the same path. Interestingly, his staged ‘channelling Hitler’ speech is an exercise in boilerplate leftist groupthink, attacking globalisation and markets for modern Germany’s woes. The students lap it up (although I suspect, given the circumstances, they’d have lapped up the Shipping Forecast). Of course, a new crop of outsiders went to the wall, while the school ‘princess’ – an exemplar of social superiority – was on the receiving end of a signal act of domestic violence. Another boy tagged the Rathaus (town hall) in letters fifty feet high with the group’s emblem. It proved his personal bravery, but made an awful mess.

I think we’d make our lives a great deal easier if we stopped quibbling over Milgram and Zimbardo’s findings and accepted that ‘obedience to authority’ is one of those awful mixed blessings we humans just have to manage. There’s nothing uniquely German about it, even though it would be easier for many people if that were the case. Our tendency to obey and form hierarchies can be life-saving, and undoubtedly grounds much of the civility that helps conservative communities cohere in ways denied to those that are more ‘liberal’. It can also damage us, though, convincing us that those who disagree are actual enemies rather than mere opponents with many things apart from politics in common. This latter really is an exercise in channelling: it was Carl Schmitt, the darkly brilliant jurisprudential scholar of Nazism who argued that democracies would inevitably see citizens divide among themselves not merely into opponents but into political ‘enemy’ and ‘friend’.

That’s a fate worth avoiding, even if it means being nice to the huntin’ shootin’ anti-abortion neighbour, or complimenting the pro-abortion dancing trannie on his/her new dress.


  1. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted September 21, 2008 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed both these movies this week (as well as Rocknrolla) and was particularly please that in Pyjamas someone actually dared put a downbeat ending on a holocaust film. Will it be re-edited for US release? I do wonder … given that The Wave hasn’t been able to find a US distributor at all.

  2. Posted September 21, 2008 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    “I think we’d make our lives a great deal easier if we stopped quibbling over Milgram and Zimbardo’s findings and accepted that ‘obedience to authority’ is one of those awful mixed blessings we humans just have to manage. There’s nothing uniquely German about it, even though it would be easier for many people if that were the case. Our tendency to obey and form hierarchies can be life-saving, and undoubtedly grounds much of the civility that helps conservative communities cohere in ways denied to those that are more ‘liberal’. It can also damage us, though, convincing us that those who disagree are actual enemies rather than mere opponents with many things apart from politics in common. ”
    Agree with you wholeheartedly.

  3. Posted September 21, 2008 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that, clarencegirl. The lack of a distributor for Die Welle is interesting, as it’s one of the few European films I’ve seen get a full commercial release in the UK (ie in all the multiplexes, not just art-house cinemas). Since Strasser’s book is a staple of US highschools, it can only be the Columbine-esque ending that’s putting US distributors off.

  4. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted September 21, 2008 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    And yet they had no problem distributing Elephant

  5. Posted September 24, 2008 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    ‘obedience to authority’ is one of those awful mixed blessings we humans just have to manage. There’s nothing uniquely German about it, even though it would be easier for many people if that were the case.

    It’s part of being a primate in fact. Carl Sagan had wonderful phrasing for this referring to scientists who irrationally capitulate to authority. There are few people capable of resisting authority when needed, mostly misfits. Literary characters usually come to mind: Berenger in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros being one.

    We’re hard wired to accept authoritarian dictates as ‘moral’ even when they’re obviously not. Fortunately we’re also inherently paradoxical and strive in the opposite direction as well. I think to do so successfully necessitates acknowledging unpleasant facts. Many rational hedonists were completely baffled by the spectacle of Nazi Germany. They simply didn’t understand the utter Unreason. Orwell who did pointed out that it was what he called ‘half-fascists’ like Winston Churchill (his example) who recognized Hitler for what he was before anyone else.

  6. tudor
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    does anyone know where i can find an english subtitle for this movie pls?

  7. Posted October 1, 2008 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Not sure. The commercial cinema release in the UK has subtitles, but none of the versions on the net do – including the one I originally watched. I presume one will turn up in due course if the film stays popular in the UK.

  8. steve
    Posted January 18, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    What does the teacher realize at the end? He gets a look of surprise on his face? Is it disbelief that he just shut down that power? Or that he created that disaster?

  9. Posted January 19, 2009 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    I think the latter… in realising that what began as basically a mischievous prank on his part (designed to stir the establishment) ended up killing someone.

  10. Posted January 20, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I got the impression that there was a bit of both involved, in that people (especially teachers) like to think they’ve got everything under control… and then it blows up in their hands, like a kid playing with crackers on Bonfire Night. This is a genuinely scary film in part because it strips away all pretenses, including the pretense that we can stay in control.

  11. Posted January 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    There’s a lot of German film exploring unpleasant things, especially things in German history. Including the Baader-Meinhof episode.

    When one of these films The Downfall abut Hitler’s last days in the bunker came out there was outrage because the film was said to ‘humanize’ him and other high ranking Nazis.

    Well humanize him it did. In the sense of presenting him as a human being. He wasn’t, however ‘a nice guy’. His charms were displayed, so was his murderous obstinence, his refusal to surrender even tho’ thousands of German kids were being cut down by Soviet soldiers for no reason not to mention his bizarre tantrums.

    Still what is represented is a human being not some mythical monstrosity and that is what people objected to. Like the fury of Jewish people at Hannah Arendt for presenting Eichmann as a mere bureaucratic functionary (in addition to her less than complimentary and ironically intra-Jewish racialist observations on the Israeli courts) what was desired – nay demanded – was that Eichmann, Hitler and the rest were not human. Outside of humanity.

    But this tendency to dehumanize the enemy, to rid oneself of the uneasy truth that we are all to a certain extent monsters is idiosyncratically human and observable in every war. Indeed the masters of it were the Nazis.

    I think the Manichean illusion that ‘we’ are not capable of monstrosity ironically condemns us to bear witness to monsters in the future. Unfortunately it’s so morally convenient to simply rest smug on our conceptions of our own virtues that it’s very difficult to make people face the abyss. Moreover he vast majority of us simply haven’t the courage.

  12. Ignacio
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to say that the previous comment was absolutely brilliant. The movie certainly shows how this kind of movement is born. Nazis didn’t come out of nowhere, people had a major influence on the development of that regime and it’s not the first or last time it’s happened. I’m from Argentina and here each time we had a military coup-de-etat people asked for it, and there’s still people supporting that kind of fascist intervention nowadays.

    The situation displayed in the movie, although impossible to occur in a week, is absolutely possible in any other period of time, maybe even not much longer than that. The movie is an excellent portait of fascism and domination-through-ignorance.

  13. Posted March 10, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Why thank you. 🙂

  14. Silvia LK
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    To ClarenceGirl – I believe you have the clue: obedience to hierarchy. To obey God rather than men, both when it is easy and when it is hard and dangerous. To do others what we want them to do to us. And “others” include every human being on earth, even of a different skin colour. Impossible? There ARE such people who obey their well-trained consciences, both individuals of many crees, even atheists, and also a group – Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only religious group identified with purple triangles (IBM code: 2) at the concentration camps. Today, about 700 JW are imprisoned in South Korea, more than 50 in Erithrea (including older than 60-year-olds) for refusing to do harm to their fellow humans. They suffered brutality, humiliation and death (3,000 in the 3rd Reich) but SS officers used them as barbers for they knew that no “Bibelforscher” would kill them with the razor. I believe they are in better psycologic shape than American vets (22 suicides a day, 26,000 calling a hotline for vets) and combatants (more dying from suicide than from war). Students can check it at http://www.alst.org/pages-us/education-us.html.

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