Last Night's TV: He found lots of muck, but not much brass

Baddiel and The Missing Nazi Billions, BBC1; Visions Of The Future, BBC4
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The Independent Culture

David Baddiel found himself being described as "emollient" in Baddiel and the Missing Nazi Billions, which can't happen to him very often, I would have thought. Then again, he was talking to the dispossessed heir of a German condom fortune and he had just explained that he couldn't get very worked up about the restitution of the wealth expropriated by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. In the circumstances, "emollient" seemed quite restrained. Still, Baddiel had been worked up enough to make a programme about the subject, obviously, and got sufficiently worked up during the making of it to emerge feeling quite differently about the subject.

One source of his emollience about the issue was what he described as his "anti-Semitic radar", an inner voice that summons for him the potential reactions of the bigots to the idea that Holocaust survivors and their descendants might actually try to recover the property stolen from them. Just shows you they did control all the money, he imagined them saying, or taking it as proof that money was all they cared about. "Why are you so worried about what the anti-Semites might think?" asked an off-camera voice. "That's what Jews are like," Baddiel replied ruefully.

Not all of them, fortunately, and Baddiel's acquisition of the necessary indifference was one of the programme's narratives. Putting the same anxiety to a Polish Jew who used recovered property to fund the nourishing of new Jewish communities in Poland, he got a bracing answer: "I don't care." The edge of weary rage in the man's voice was hardly surprising. So extensive was the genocide in Poland that Gentile actors now have to be hired to pretend to be Jewish to dress out Warsaw's Jewish street market, and, even now, as Baddiel discovered himself, Jewish cemeteries are regularly desecrated.

The other theme of the programme was that the crime of the Holocaust itself had effectively eclipsed the crimes of expropriation and theft that accompanied it, sometimes by wiping the claimants off the map entirely, and in other cases by destroying every bit of evidence that the crime had been committed. Insurance companies that had issued life policies unaware that a programme of mass murder was about to be carried out proved distinctly sluggardly about paying out to surviving beneficiaries after the war. Museums still drag their feet in checking that their holdings don't include artworks stolen from murdered Jews (though Britain has a better record than many European countries). And, in some cases, history itself has made the calculation of compensation very complicated. What do you pay to the Jewish community whose synagogue was destroyed and now finds a 27-storey office block built on the site? Baddiel ended sufficiently fired up about the issue to write off to the Russian authorities to enquire about compensation for his grandfather's brick factory in Königsberg. Their reply added one final layer of complication to his thoughtful film. Effectively, they argued, our country got trashed, too, and we reckon Königsberg was part-payment of our compensation.

After this inevitably melancholy reminder of the greed and brutality of man, it was refreshing to get a blast of unconstrained technological optimism from Dr Michio Kaku in Visions of the Future, though his opening predictions of limitless scientific mastery couldn't help but look a bit blithe and dewy-eyed by contrast. Things might get better, but the lesson of history is that people generally don't, so advances in genetic science and medicine could easily usher in some previously inconceivable enormity, rather than a golden age of technocratic control. In fact, later in the film, Dr Kaku did allude to some of the downsides of our increasing mastery of our own biology, although you got the feeling that his heart wasn't entirely in it. His vision is broadly rose-tinted.

He began, ironically enough, with the kind of legacy that no regime can steal from you: your genetic inheritance from your parents, which in Dr Kaku's case included the unwelcome possibility that he might develop Alzheimer's. After taking a test that identified potential risk factors, he was given the all-clear as far as his genes were concerned, but the point of his film was that the current boom in human biology wouldn't just deliver knowledge about the future but the means to change it for the better. In time, everyone (or everyone who can afford it, which is not the same thing at all) might lay down a set of bottle-grown organs as insurance against accidental damage.

It also seems likely that we will be able to turbo-charge the human brain to create what will probably be branded as i-People. The thought occurred that it might not be impossible to biologically engineer a population without bigotry or the will to exterminate those who are marginally different to them. The only question is whether we can restrain our urge to kill one another for long enough to put the improvement in place.

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