At St. Mauritz High School in the picturesque German city of Münster last week, teacher Dieter Fuchs found himself talking to the teenagers in his history and politics class about some recent street clashes in Schleswig-Holstein. Local skinheads had mounted a protest demonstration against the threatened closure of a neo-Nazi hangout. Leftists attacked the demonstrators, and the police swept down on the whole neighborhood. Warned Fuchs: "Let's make sure we don't say, 'Oh, there're just a few of these neo-Nazis — no problem.' No, we have to watch out. We have to ask what's going on, how do young people get carried away by crazy ideas?" Then and there he also determined to put 'The Wave' on this semester's assigned reading list.
The likes of George Orwell, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Elie Wiesel all have their place in the canon of antitotalitarian literature. But when it comes to hands-on classroom teaching about the dangers of fascism, their works are often outclassed by 'The Wave', a 109-page, quick-read "young-adult" novel that has become a surprisingly influential title on Germany's school reading lists. Oddly, the book did not even originate in Europe; it's American.
The Wave was first published in 1981 in the U.S. and has sold steadily since, from Boston to Beijing. It was translated into German in 1984 and has sold close to 2 million copies. The book is used by high schools all over the country, either in German or, for English-language courses, in its original version. The novel tells of a California high school teacher who seeks to dramatize the perilous allure of fascism by conducting an experiment in his classroom. He appoints himself "leader" and enlists the pupils in military drills and recitations of mottos such as "Strength through discipline." Alarmingly, the teenagers take to it. The movement, called the Wave, spreads through the school and soon gets out of control. A Jewish youngster is roughed up. The now desperate teacher struggles to reverse the tide, confront the youngsters with their folly and — with the help of anti-Wave resister Laurie, editor of the school newspaper, and her football player boyfriend — save the day for an upbeat, thoughtful ending. The book was written by Morton Rhue — the pen name of Todd Strasser, a prolific writer of young-adult fiction — who drew the novel from an educational TV film based on a true-life incident involving a teacher in Palo Alto, California.
Many teachers are enthusiastic. They say 'The Wave' serves up characters with whom students can readily identify and that it offers young Germans a more detached view, since the action takes place in distant California and not uncomfortably close to home. "A pupil whose grandfather was in the Hitler Youth, say, does not feel personally oppressed by it," observes Dieter Fuchs, who has taught 'The Wave' in his Münster school for 15 years. Mainly, though, he admires its central message: "To show how human beings are capable of falling under the spell of a dangerous leader with charisma, and how that's not only a problem of German society, but also maybe of other societies." Fuchs and other devotees assign 'The Wave' alongside classics like 'Animal Farm' and 'The Diary of Anne Frank'.
Even skeptics find the book immensely readable. Gudrun Finger, a veteran teacher at Beuel Comprehensive School in Bonn, has assigned The Wave on and off over the years despite some misgivings. "The connection with the National Socialist times, the Hitler regime, is in there, of course," she says. "But when I select it for class reading it's primarily for the foreground story itself, which is in any case gripping for the students." Beyond that, however, she complains that "it's not a book that delivers informed insights into right-wing extremism." For more meaningful, though less palatable lessons, teacher Finger turns instead to historical nonfiction, eye-witness accounts and another, more realistic novel, Louis Begley's 1991 'Wartime Lies', about a family in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Ron Jones, the American teacher who conducted the Wave experiment at Palo Alto's Cubberly High School in 1969 — and still finds it scary — has himself complained that the novel is over-romanticized. The idea that a couple of teenage lovebirds could effectively challenge fascism, he wrote to Ernst Klett Verlag, one of the German publishers, "was not true in my classroom, and is not true historically." Fair enough. Few teachers would claim that 'The Wave' contains any sort of sure-fire anti-fascist vaccine. Few could deny that it's simplistic. But so was Collodi's 'Pinocchio', even as it helped teach kids not to lie.