Maybe our generational enmity has grown too great these days, but once upon a time, primary school teachers would ask students to interview an elder as an eyewitness to history. Most of our elders didn’t participate in History, big H. Few of them were (or stood adjacent to) world leaders. But in some way or another, they experienced events most of us only see in photographs and film: the Vietnam War, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War and its end…. It’s not hard to see how this relatively recent history has shaped the world we live in.
Hearing from people who lived through such world-historical events can give us needed perspective, if they’re still living and willing to talk. It offers a sense that the apocalyptic dread we often feel in the face of our own crises – climate, virus, war, the seeming end of democratic institutions – was also acutely felt, and often with as much good reason, by those who lived a generation or two before us. And yet, they survived — or did so long enough to make children and grandchildren. They saw global catastrophes pass and change and sometimes witnessed turns of fortune that brought empires to their knees.
Indeed, when we step back just a generation or two before the oft-maligned boomers, we find people whose elders lived through the event that has come to stand for the hubristic fall of empires — Napoleon’s defeat and capture at Waterloo on March, 20, 1815. The philosopher, writer, social critic, and public figure Bertrand Russell was such a person. Both of Russell’s parents died when he was very young, and his grandparents raised him. In the restored, colorized and “speech adjusted” 1952 interview just above, you can hear Russell reminisce about his grandfather, the 1st Earl Russell, who was born in 1792.
Russell’s grandfather was a world leader. He served as prime minister between 1846 and 1856 and again from 1865 to 1866. Or as Russell puts it to his American interviewer, “He was prime minister during your Mexican War, during the Revolutions of 1848. I remember him quite well. But as you can see, he belonged to an age that now seems rather removed.” A time when one man could and did, in just a few years time, place nearly all of Europe under his direct control or the control of his subordinates; before modern warfare, guerrilla warfare, cyber and drone war….
Earl Russell not only met Napoleon, but became a late ally. After a 90-minute meeting with Bonaparte during the self-proclaimed Emperor’s exile, “Russell denounced the Bourbon Restoration and Britain’s declaration of war against the recently-returned Napoleon,” notes the video’s poster, “by arguing in the House of Commons that foreign powers had no right to dictate France’s form of government.” The younger Russell, himself born in 1872, also saw history swept away. He lived in “a world where all kinds of things that have now disappeared were thought to be going to last forever,” he says.
One may be reminded of the Communist Manifesto’s “all that is solid melts into air.” Russell gives no indication that his grandfather, a contemporary of that world-historical document’s author, ever interacted with Karl Marx. But Russell himself met an imposing historical figure who looms just as large in world history. Hear him above, in 1961, describe how he met Vladimir Lenin in 1920.