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“Dany the Red” on Student Revolutions, Then and Now

1968 European agitator speaks at SMG tonight

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Daniel Cohn-Bendit, formerly known as Dany the Red, led a student revolt in France in 1968. Today, he’s channeled his youthful anarchy into political muscle as a member of the European Parliament of the European Union.

The late 1960s were a time of intense student upheaval around the globe, and 1968 was particularly tumultuous. In the United States, protests against the Vietnam War were marked by the takeover of administration buildings at Columbia University and riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Protests erupted on campuses in Mexico, Belgium, Prague, and Switzerland, with hundreds of thousands of youths railing against the policies of their governments. But perhaps no unrest was more dramatic than in France, in what has come to be known simply as May 1968.

Leading the charge against university policies, societal norms, and government authority was a German student with French roots and a mop of red hair named Dany Cohn-Bendit. Better known at the time as Dany the Red, Cohn-Bendit helped launch an uprising that soon spread across France, causing university shutdowns, mass riots, violent clashes with police, and finally, a general strike that rocked the de Gaulle government.

Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France following the uprising. Back in Germany, he continued to pursue revolutionary activities, along with future German foreign minister and vice chancellor Joschka Fischer. Both were members of the Frankfurt “Sponti” scene, which espoused social change through squatting, street fighting, and agitating at such companies as Hoechst AG and the Opel automobile company.

Now 62, Cohn-Bendit has since transformed his anarchist energy into political acumen as a member of the European Parliament and copresident of the Greens/Free European Alliance Group in the European Parliament. Climate change, globalization, and civil liberties may have taken the place of dormitory overcrowding, sexual freedom, and outdated social mores, but Cohn-Bendit’s passion still burns. He is speaking tonight at the University, sponsored by BU’s Institute for Human Sciences, in a talk titled The Legacy of 1968: A European Perspective. BU Today spoke with him by phone in Germany recently to learn his views on changing the world today.

BU Today: What was it about 1968 that sparked so many protests around the world?
Cohn-Bendit: It was a revolt by the generation born after World War II against the type of society that the generation of the war had constructed after 1945. What’s interesting was that in Warsaw, in a communist country, you had a revolt against censorship and the right to have jazz clubs, to hear jazz, which was considered imperialistic culture. It was their form of anti-authoritarian revolt. In the States, you had the opposition against the Vietnam War, but it was also a revolt for another way of life. It was against the morals of middle-class America. In the beginning in France, you had the same. You had the Vietnam War, but you also had the revolt against the authoritarian system of de Gaulle, and you had this big general strike. We were also the first media generation. The media played a big role because it transported the momentum of the revolt, and this inspired from one country to another.

What is the legacy of 1968?
In the late ’60s, the world began to change, and we have a completely different world today. The legacy of 1968 is very difficult, because if you say, “Do you think you can do politics like you did in the ’60s?” I’d say no. If you say, “Do you think that ’68 had an influence on the world of today,” I’d say no, except that it changed the world so that we have another world today. You have always to keep in mind that in the ’60s we were students. We weren’t afraid of unemployment. We didn’t know AIDS. Climate change, we didn’t know it. The social and ecological disasters of globalization, we didn’t know them. It’s another world today, so it’s very difficult to talk about the legacy.

Do you still consider yourself an anarchist at heart?
No, I’m not the same kid. Now it’s not possible. I couldn’t be a European MP. I still consider myself, in the European terms, a libertarian. I know the American term is more on the right. Libertarian in Europe is a left position.

How would you characterize the student counterculture today?
It exists. They are two very important things they are challenging — the war in Iraq, and they are very critical of globalization. I think these are very big issues. They are determining our future.

Do you feel that street protesting lost some of its power when the huge worldwide demonstrations against the Iraq war seemed to fall on deaf ears?
The demonstrations against Vietnam were also ignored for years and years. And it was also the resistance of the Vietnamese that brought the American administration to end the war, but it lasted a very long time. The problem, of course, is different when you have a draft.

Is taking to the streets still an effective method to bring about change?
Change happens on two levels. Change is made when there are movements in society. But in the end, change at a real political level must be realized where the decisions are taken, and this is in Parliament. Change without a movement in society is not possible, but change only in society also is not possible. You have to be able to materialize this change through new laws and new decisions of the power structure.

How can the global war on terror be reconciled with the preservation of civil liberties?
There we have a problem. The war on terror is led by the American administration, and they don’t care about civil rights and civil liberties. I think this is one of the main problems of our society. The Americans pushed very hard, and the European governments gave in a lot of the time. Our group thinks we shouldn’t. I think with the war on terror we are losing a certain idea of liberty. I certainly agree it’s difficult. But I don’t think you get a more free society if you allow torture. I don’t think you demonstrate what you fight for when you have Guantanamo. I don’t think you demonstrate what you fight for when you have the CIA taking people all over the world, doing renditions. All this is terrible, because I think this is where the terrorists are winning. They are winning by undermining our idea of democracy and freedom.

What message will you bring to BU tonight?
I never know beforehand. It depends on the feeling, the people. We’ll have to see; I always talk free. It’s an improvisation. I will certainly tackle ’68, but I don’t want to be stuck in ’68. I want to arrive in 2008.

Sponsored by BU’s Institute for Human Sciences, in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut Boston, The Legacy of 1968: A European Perspective takes place Tuesday, March 18, at 7 p.m., at the SMG Auditorium, 595 Commonwealth Ave. The talk is free and open to the public.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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