They have nothing to do, however, with judging the actions of others. Such judgments are the prerogative of (often self-proclaimed) moralists. In ethics there is a humility; moralists are usually righteous.
These thoughts come to my mind as I read the macabre denunciations being levelled today against Günter Grass. About him as a man and about his great work as a writer, they totally miss the point, and might be dismissed as laughable, but, as an index of a certain recent moral climate in Europe, they are troubling. They are an example of moral judgments made in a carefully constructed vacuum of experience. They are what is left after the emptying out of lived experience, and they are a strident denial of what we know in our bones to be real.
Günter Grass, aged 15 and dreaming of being a heroic warrior, volunteered to join the army and, when he was 17, accepted to enlist with the Waffen SS. After a few months, having participated in no atrocity - except that of wearing a uniform that rightly provoked an atrocious fear - he became a prisoner of war and started to learn, with horror, what the forces that he had enlisted with had perpetrated.
The rest of his life as a storyteller was devoted to grasping, narrating and explaining, with extensive fellow-feeling, the contradictions, cruelties, abysmal losses, wisdom, ignorance, cowardice and grace of people (person by person) under extreme historical stress. Very few other writers of our time have such a wide knowledge of articulate and inarticulate experience. Grass never shut his eyes. He became a writer of honour.
That he was naive when he was 17 means only that he was 17. Inside a story there are no mistakes, only the living through of mistakes. And he has lived through his, better than most of us would have done.
The moralists go on to condemn Grass further for waiting so long to make this short chapter of his early life public; he finally wrote and published his autobiography when he was in his 70s.
To me it is clear that he felt that it was only at this age that he could do any real justice to this incident, which was both a choice and an accident. And by "do justice" I mean to tell the story without any oversimplification, so that it could encourage true reflection in future readers. He chose the story's time with the courage of a burrowing storyteller.
For clarity's sake, I picture a triangle. One of its points is an extensive (and very painful) knowledge of human experience. Grass's writings represent such a point. The triangle's second point is ignorance, the direct opposite to the first. The bravura of Grass' decision to join the Waffen SS is represented here. The triangle's third point is neither knowledge nor ignorance, but the blank refusal of experience. And this is the moralists' point. Such refusals have a long history. Remember the Pharisees.
But what about the point of innocence, you may ask; where is that? It is sometimes there, right at the end of a story.
The righteous moralists are proposing that Grass should renounce all the honours that his life's work has received. Their proposition only shows that, by systematically refusing to acknowledge his experience, they have forgotten what honour consists of. He has not.
· John Berger is a novelist and critic