Cohn-Bendit, Daniel (b. 1945)

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French student leader of the revolution of May 1968.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit was born just four days before the end of World War II in Montauban, France on 4 April 1945, to German Jewish parents who had fled Nazi Germany during the war. His father had been a successful lawyer prior to the Nazi seizure of power and had made a name for himself defending leftist individuals. Because of his father's association with the German Left and Jewish heritage, the family was forced to flee to France during the war. Cohn-Bendit's parents returned to Germany after 1945, but the family never felt completely settled in either country and young Daniel finished his primary and secondary schooling in West Germany. His own sense of both German and French citizenship would later explain his commitment to internationalism and the European Community. After passing his high school exams in 1965, he chose to attend university in France with the assistance of a German repatriation scholarship.

Having grown up in a bilingual environment, Cohn-Bendit had no trouble studying at the new branch of the University of Paris located in Nanterre. While attending Nanterre, Cohn-Bendit was influenced by one of his teachers, Alain Touraine (b. 1925), a young sociologist interested in the "sociology of action" who specialized in labor movements in Latin America. Cohn-Bendit agreed with his teacher and felt that sociologists had a duty to put their thoughts into action. To the chagrin of his professors, he became associated with a small group of students known as the enragés, or "the angry ones," who frequently disrupted classes and demanded university reforms. In January 1968, in a famous confrontation with François Missoffe, France's Minister for Youth and Sports, Cohn-Bendit compared the minister to the leader of the Hitler Youth. This relatively minor incident turned Cohn-Bendit into "Dany the Red" due to his red hair, cheeky comments, and assumed leftist leanings at Nanterre.

In February of 1968, Cohn-Bendit went to West Berlin to attend a Vietnam Congress with other student leaders of the growing European antiwar movement. The congress celebrated the recent Tet Offensive and one of the key spokesmen was the Marxist Rudi Dutschke, who headed West Germany's Socialist German Student Union (SDS). Cohn-Bendit greatly admired Dutschke and may have also earned the nickname "Dany the Red" from his association with "Red Rudi" Dutschke.

On 22 March 1968, Cohn-Bendit and a dozen others occupied the faculty lounge in the administration building at Nanterre and demanded university reforms and the right to use classrooms to hold discussions about the Vietnam War. The resulting disciplinary hearings and repressive measures taken by the school president only increased the supporters of Cohn-Bendit's group that came to be known as the 22 March Movement. The fact that Cohn-Bendit and his peers chose to name their group after the date of their initial occupation is indicative of their disregard for established student associations or more doctrinaire Marxist student organizations. Historian David Caute has suggested that Cohn-Bendit and the 22 March Movement's politics were closest to the French Situationists, who believed that revolutions cannot be controlled and that the role of the revolutionary is therefore simply to create situations that will lead to another chain of events ultimately altering political and social life. Cohn-Bendit and the 22 March Movement's actions eventually forced the closing of the university at Nanterre.

By the beginning of May 1968, Cohn-Bendit had become a public figure, using his own disciplinary hearings to rally students all over Paris to the movement. On 2 May, the police invasion of the Sorbonne roused a universal outcry among young people, workers, and the residents of the Latin Quarter; Dany the Red was seen with a megaphone all over the city at rallies and sit-ins. Using his broad smile and good sense of humor, Cohn-Bendit had a perfect sense of the moment and drew legions of support precisely because he did not come across as an angry dogmatic revolutionary.

The May events of 1968 proved to be the most spectacular in Western Europe, and Cohn-Bendit's playful mocking of authority made him the perfect spokesman to antagonize President Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) French workers would later stage a general strike and by 22 May had shut down France. De Gaulle later used Cohn-Bendit's West German citizenship as a reason to deport him and he was expelled from the country at the end of May. Cohn-Bendit remained active in the New Leftin Frankfurt, and in the 1980s joined the Green Party. He would later be elected to the Frankfurt City Council and was a member of the European Parliament in the early twenty-first century.

See alsoMay 1968; 1968; Student Movements.


Caute, David. The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968. New York, 1988.

Cohn-Bendit, Daniel. Personal Web page. Available from

Fraser, Ronald. 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. London, 1988.

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. New York, 2004.

Stuart J. Hilwig