The sense of alarm in West Germany that accompanied last winter's sharp rise in unemployment has since eased. For the moment at least, Western Europe's most powerful economy appears to be wrestling recessionary forces to a standstill.

But the number of West German jobless has stuck stubbornly at record high levels, and this still feeds anxieties here about the country's economic future.

For all the public attention given lately to West Germany's troubles with its peace movements, a more immediate challenge to the nation's leadership is contained in the current unemployment statistics.

Gerhard Altmeier, who directs the employment office in this Rhineland industrial city, has watched the rise and fall of jobless ranks for more than a decade. Like many labor experts, he doesn't expect West Germany to be able to shorten its unemployment lines with the apparent ease it managed during the last bout with recession in the mid-1970s.

"The problem is definitely more critical now," he said. "There is more unemployment but fewer positions available because Germany has actually lost working places. I must believe things will improve, but I don't yet see the light."

The jobless rate started rising a year ago as a result of economic pressures similar to those acting on other industrialized countries -- high oil prices that undercut producton, competition from the Japanese, and what Altmeier calls "the battle between the industrialized and Third World countries."

Unemployment broke through the 1 million mark in December, shot quickly up to 1.3 million, and although it dropped back to 1.1 million in May due to normal seasonal variations, it remains at its highest level since the mid-1950s.

What is bad for West Germany is still good in comparison with most other industrialized countries. At just over 5 percent for the year so far, West German's unemployment rate ranks behind only that of Japan among the major economic powers.

On top of that, a flutter of fresh optimism came recently with the release of April figures showing a rise in West Germany's trade surplus and a revival in orders for manufactured goods. The indicators seemed to suggest that the weakening of the deutschemark, which makes German goods cheaper overseas, had begun to have its positive effects.

But the German central bank warned against premature sighs of relief. It is more likely that West Germany will have a period now of prolonged economic stagnation, with upturns in some major industries balanced by a continued slump in other sectors.

For a national accustomed to steady economic growth, adjusting to the prospect of stagnation has been difficult. This psychological frustration is behind much of the intramural strife this year in Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party and the strained relations between the SDP and its junior coalition partner, the more centralist Free Democrats.

As SDP and FDP politicians prepare for the drafting this summer of the 1982 national budget -- involving difficult bargaining sessions, which West Germany commentators imagine might rupture the Schmidt government -- they will be reckoning with a slowed economy and, particularly with the stubbornly high number of unedmployed who have put an added burden on a social welfare system that is already stretching Bonn's spending to critical limits.

West Germany was spared the sustained high unemployment other industrialized countries suffered in the years after the 1973-74 oil price shocks. But the Germans looked to be doing better than in fact they were.

Their unemployment rate was kept down less by an increase in demand than by the elimination of certain workers -- notably, the old and the foreign.

West German firms were able to get workers to retire as early as 59-years-old by a scheme that permitted them to draw unemployment benefits until their pensions took effect. As for the foreign workers, who had been drawn from southern Europe to West Germany during earlier boom years, their inflow was stopped and a number of them returned home.

One other factor served in West Germany's favor: the participation rate of women in the economy, which at 48 percent was already relatively high, did not rise any further during the 1970s in contrast to some other industrialized countries.

For these somewhat tricky and lucky reasons, West Germany's unemployment rate stayed relatively low while the country lost an estimated 1.7 million jobs between 1973 and 1977, according to Fritz Scharpf, a labor expert at Berlin's International Institute for Management and Administration.

Today, things are different. The early-retirement scheme has been exhausted by German firms. The children of those foreign workers who never left West Germany have grown up and are now adding to the unemployment statistic. And the participation rate of German women has begun to rise.

"In the 1980s, we will no longer be an exception in the world economy," Scharpf concluded in an interview.

As West Germany is being forced now to live with a higher level of unemployment, the philosophy of the Bonn government on how to deal with the problem is changing.

When the Social Democrats first took control in 1969, they established an insurance fund, in conjunction with industry and labor, to pay for unemployment and short-worktime benefits, worker retraining programs nd jobs creation measures. In addition, the government supplemented these standing activities several times during the late 1970s with special programs intended to help ease unemployment. This included a major investments program launched in 1977, which expired this year, and extra funds in 1979 for employment measures.

But this year, the Bonn government has done little extra to combat the high jobless rate. A senior West German economic adviser said this reflects two things: an already strained effort to limit federal spending and dissillusionment with past labor measures that were subject to abuse.

Schmidt is said by this adviser to be skeptical about funding new anti-unemployment measures. Instead, the government's focus has turned toward promoting structural changes in the economy that would restore competitiveness and yield new jobs.

A first step in this direction was the announcement in April that Bonn would be raising about $3 billion in international capital markets to finance investment, particularly in energy-saving and new-technology fields. Chancellory planners sy next year's federal budget should generally reflect a shift from consumption toward investment spending.

The government's gamble appears to be that as long as the federal unemployment benefits program is God -- which it is, paying 68 percent of an unemployed person's net income during the first year out of work -- West Germany can manage the current difficult period without extraordinary short-term measures.

Meantime, the West German trade unions, though publicly charging the government with not doing enough to reduce unemployment, have refrained from forcing the issue.

This seems to reflect at least two factors: the palliative effect of the unemployment benefits, which are thought to be supplemented by illegal black market work such as house painting or truck driving; and because unemployment has truck predominantly at minority groups not as well represented by the unions.

At the same time, the German Labor Federation has warned that by not spending enough on emergency jobs creation programs now, Bonn is courting worse problems later.

"If you decrease spending now, you just have to increase it later," said Ursual Engelen-Kefer, a federaton labor market expert. "Where you put the limit is always a power play."

Under prssure from the FDP, the SDP had agreed to limit spending this year to a 4 percent increase. That jumped in recent months to 7 1/2 percent, due in part to an unexpected increase of $1.7 billion in unemployment compensation.

With international investors watching closely now to see how Bonn manages next year's budget -- and reigns in a $15 billion deficit, an unnerving 4 1/2 percent of GNP -- Schmidt's government faces tight constraints.

One quirk in the current employment picture is that so many out of work, a number of more highly skilled jobs are nonetheless going begging.

One consolation for the long term is that a general shortage of workers could eventually result when the number of young Germans entering the job market drops off later this decade.