by Todd Strasser
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
In The Wave, high school teacher Ben Ross is trying to show his students what life in Nazi Germany might have been like. You might know a lot about the Holocaust, or you might be just learning – whatever the case, certain symbols probably come to mind: the swastika, the uniforms worn by German soldiers, and quite probably, Adolf Hitler himself. Yes, people can be symbols, too.
As with everything having to do with the Holocaust, the role played by symbols is incredibly complex. If you are interested in it, we recommend reading up on it a bit. With that in mind, you can understand why symbols in The Wave (and The Wave!) would be so important.
The main symbols at play are The Wave logo, The Wave motto, The Wave salute, and The Wave identity cards. As you might be thinking, these types of symbols aren't just in use in The Wave and Nazi Germany, but in almost every type of group. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts even have flags and salutes and mottos, right? Right.
These are symbols of group unity. They stand for (or symbolize) the shared values of the members. So, what is the problem? Why do these symbols of group unity become symbols of something scary, when Wave members get hold of it? Read on for one possible answer.
Divide and Conquer
In order to make his students really feel like part of a group, Ben provides them with symbols of formal membership they can use to show they are part of The Wave. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – it all depends on the goals and values of the group. For example, the swastika was in (non-evil) use for thousands of years before the Nazis got hold of it.
So, how it is that these symbols of group unity become symbols of something ugly and corrupt? Our best guess: it's because they are also being used to divide Wave members from non-Wave members – and even from each other. Pretty quickly, unity becomes discrimination.
First, there's internal separation. Remember, Ben was trying to create an ugly and corrupt group: he wanted to see if he could use Nazi psychology to make the group members act badly. So Ben awards some members "monitor" status – giving them the power to tattle on other members. Boom – no unity.
The membership cards (along with the logo, motto, and salute) not only separate Wave members from each other, but from other members of the larger group of which they are all a part: students at Gordon High School. Did you know that before the Nazis came to power, most Jews in Germany were also German citizens? The Nazis passed laws taking this citizenship away from Jews, and they also created laws for identifying who was a Jew and who wasn't. Very quickly, they created discrimination within the larger German community.
Ben doesn't have a lot in common with Hitler (despite what he might think at the end there). But the basic principle he drew from is the same: dividing people from each other, especially in the name of unity, usually brings out the worst in everyone.