1945: Danny the Red or Green Is Born, Will Upset France

Daniel Cohn-Bendit began by protesting for sexual freedom in French universities and wound up advocating for anarchy in Germany. Now he just wants truths to be told.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 13 May 1968, shouting slogans during a protest rally of students.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 13 May 1968, shouting slogans during a protest rally of students.Credit: AFP

April 4, 1945, is the birthdate of Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Better known as Danny the Red — both for the politics and the red hair of his youth — and later, as Danny the Green, Cohn-Bendit has been involved in European public life since leading the student protests that helped to shut down large parts of France in the turbulent days of 1968.

Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit was born in Montauban, in southern France, to Erich Cohn-Bendit, a German Jew, and the former Herta David, a Polish-born Jew. The couple had fled Weimar Germany in 1933, as Erich's left-wing legal work had made life untenable for them there.

In the early 1950s, Erich returned to Germany, where he began working on war-related restitution issues. The family followed him there in 1958. Daniel attended the prestigious Odenwalschule boarding school outside Frankfurt, and at age 14, he elected to become a German citizen.

The students rally by his side

In 1966, Danny moved back to France to attend the newly formed University of Nanterre, in Paris suburbs. He studied sociology and became involved in various anarchistic student groups. One of his preferred causes was a call for more sexual freedom for students, in particular the right for male students to visit women in their dormitories.

In 1967, after leading a demonstration, Cohn-Bendit found himself facing an attempt by the university administration to expel him. This move rallied other students around him.

On March 22, 1968, students occupied the administration offices of Nanterre. When the school was shut down, on May 2, protests spread to the centre of Paris.

By now, the protests were about a lot more than mixing of sexes in dormitories, having joined the causes of a wide range of French political, economic and social issues.

Daniel Cohen-Bendit, 2008Credit: Dan Keinan

Eventually, the labor unions joined the protest movement, and on May 13, France was paralyzed by a general strike.

When a speech by Cohn-Bendit elicited reactions of public figures who referred to his “foreign origins,” protesters responded by chanting, “We are all German Jews.”

Although Daniel Cohn-Bendit is remembered for his leadership role in the protests, after May 10, he wasn’t even in Paris, and his Nanterre colleagues, feeling sidelined, retreated to the Atlantic coast. Come May 22, he was deported, after French authorities declared him a “seditious alien.”

Revolutionary imagination

Cohn-Bendit’s subsequent career was in Germany. Initially, he worked at the community level with anarchistic groups, working in the Karl Marx bookstore and at a revolutionary kindergarten.

His activity as an educator led to a controversial episode that dogs Cohn-Bendit to this day. In his 1975 book “Le Grand Bazaar,” he noted how at the pre-school, he had participated in sexual activities with some of the children; several years later, in a magazine article he described the “beautiful” experience of being “seduced” by a six-year-old girl.

Confronted with the quotations in 2001, Cohn-Bendit said that the encounters never took place, and that he had invented them as an “obnoxious provocation” meant to mock contemporary sexual mores.

In 1984 Cohn-Bendit joined the Greens movement and in 1989, became deputy mayor of Frankfurt, and a member of the European Parliament a decade later. He has always been characterized by a humanistic moderation, but has also moved closer to the center in the intervening years.

Cohn-Bendit never hid his origins, but also never identified in any significant way with Jewish affairs. In 2010, however, he was among the founders of JCall, a Jewish advocacy group based on the J Street model, meant to push a pro-Israel left-wing agenda in Brussels.

In January, 2015, after the murderous ISIS attack on a kosher grocery in Paris, he expressed his shock and concern that the European media and political left seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the victims were attacked solely for being Jewish, and nothing else.

“It’s hard for me. At this moment I feel I’m a ‘Jew,’ while my entire life was not ‘Jewish,’ he told an interviewer. “And this feeling, when I see today we’re returning to the same situation, is terrifying.”