URBANE and civilized, Catholic and humanist, in short an Italian, Signor Barzini sits across the table--perhaps we are in Venice, or more likely Rome--and over wine and cigars discusses the state of Europe. Maybe we Americans, a decent though impatient people, will listen. As journalist and member of parliament, Barzini has followed the fortunes of his country, and of the Christian West, through a terrible century. He has known them all, the politicians and soldiers, the cardinals and the prime ministers, the diplomats and the dictators, who twice plunged Europe into bloody, fratricidal wars and who twice led her peoples back from new Dark Ages. Listen, he says, listen carefully, the West is in danger. Policies change, leaders falter, but the old values endure. Without those values, life is not livable. So Europe must prepare itself against "imminent and unprecedented nightmares" foisted on us by the communist threat from the East. "Europe should clearly evolve one common will, speak with one calm majestic voice, have a clear idea of its identity and goals, cultivate and defend its economic prosperity, and pursue a single foreign policy in its own interest (and the world's). It should therefore forget its trivial disputes and put its own house in order, set up authoritative common democratic institutions, arrange its financial affairs . . . adopt one common currency, and set up one redoubtable defense establishment." If Europe fails to do this, proclaims Barzini, it will be extinguished, as were the ancient Greek cities, the flower of civilization, by the brutal Macedonian phalanxes.

The British? Barzini admires the British for they have shown gentlemen everywhere now to dress. They must now recover their knack for leadership and forsake their insular prejudices. ("All these prejudices used to be expressed openly. Now they are politely kept hidden" even though "some Britons go so far in their attempt to understand foreigners as to speak Continental languages fluently, eat octopuses, frogs, and snails . . . with lots of garlic"). The Germans? They have no foreign policy proportionate to their economic power: they are "an economic giant but a political dwarf. . . . Sinister memories of the past are against them. They are aware they must be careful not to provoke . . . hostility, or fear among adversaries and friends. They know they must be very careful in order not to start that very war they want to prevent." The French? Ah, the French with their mad delusions of grandeur. It is but a step from Louis XIV the Sun King to Mitterrand's inaugural address ("A just and generous France . . . can light the path of mankind"). They are like the ancient Chinese poets of the imperial court writing about their own country, the navel of the earth.

The Italians? Italy is not yet throughly modern. "Its heart still belongs in the past. This is not entirely a disadvantage . . . In fact it is the reason why Italy attracts and charms so many visitors. It is still a refuge from the impersonal discipline and the boredom of life in their well-organized, predictable countries." Charming, charming, these Italians, but they need a united Europe in order to solve their chronic unemployment and to render impotent their large communist party. Then, too, a United States of Europe would allow Italy to hide, to "make other people forget the Fascists' shabby and dishonorable conduct of foreign affairs and our disreputable defeat." The Belgians, the Dutch? They too need union. Industrious farmers, yes, but as the great French historian Michelet pointed out, "that corner of Europe, the meeting place of European wars. That's why those plains are so fertile; the blood does not have time to dry." That is why the most famous battles in European history "bear the names of previously obscure and undistinguished Flemish villages."

The conversation quickens, the anecdotes sparkle, the dream is noble, the vision Roman imperial, and yet old- school liberal, smacking of Cavour and the Risorgimento. Who is to say Barzini is wrong about Europe's danger and Europe's opportunity? He is certainly a delightful conversationalist. Waiter, another bottle of wine! THE GERMANS. By Gordon A. Craig. Meridian/New American Library. 350 pp. Paperback, $8.95 "

THE HUN is always at your throat or at your feet," observed Winston Churchill in time of war. A less inflammatory view was offered by Tacitus who defined Germans as a "distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves." Who are these industrious and talented, and at times brutal, people who have so marked our century? No one is more qualified to answer the question in English than Gordon Craig, emeritus professor of history at Stanford University and the current president of the American Historical Association.

In this outstanding volume, a companion to his authoritative political history, Germany, 1866-1945, Craig offers a cultural and historical analysis of contemporary German life. Though the angle of vision is scholarly, the view is personal, the summation of a half-century of German scholarship that began in 1935 when Craig went to the Fatherland to feast on the masterpieces of high German culture and found himself witnessing the acceleration of Nazi barbarism. Craig's theme: how today's Germans retain old and stubborn assumptions and prejudices. These he expresses in a series of dichotomies: a religious heritage "ambivalent in its simultaneous tendency toward establishmentarianism and revolt; a respect for hard work and the financial rewards that it brings . . . combined with the uneasy knowledge, based on traumatic experience, that such rewards are apt to be impermanent";;a veneration of learning and literature that is "offset by a disinclination to allow them full freedom of expression"; a resistance to "change and nonconformity and to those who represent it" and associated with this an attitude that expresses itself in the "eager adoption of technical and economic innovation and a simultaneous reprobation of its social and moral effects, this latter feeling often assuming romantic, racist, and regressive forms."

Craig is especially good on postwar German politics and recent attitudes toward Hitler and his gang. An appendix discusses "the awful German language." This is a brilliant, stimulating, rich work, indispensable to student and expert alike. FRENCH AND GERMANS, GERMANS AND FRENCH: A Personal Interpretation of France Under Two Occupations, 1914-1918/1940-1944. By Richard Cobb. Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England. 188 pp. $15.95

THOMAS JEFFERSON is supposed to have said that every man has two countries, his own and France. This is surely a sentiment that would appeal to that unabashed Francophile, Oxford historian Richard Cobb. Elsewhere he has written, "I have . . . worked on French history because I like being in France and have now reached the second generation of my French friends. To live in France is to live double, every moment counts, the light of the sky of the Ile-de-France is unique and a source of joy, there is joy too in a small rectangle of sunshine at the top of a tall, greying, leprous building, the colour of Utrillo, and in the smell of chestnuts that brings the promise of autumn . . . and the beloved repetition of the Paris year. There is joy in speaking French, and in listening to women, children . . . speaking it. Paris is the abode of love, as well as of violence . . . love is there all the time, in a cat arching its back in the sun." Plainly, one reads Cobb to share this love, and to marvel at his idiosyncratic, very personal kind of history, which ingeniously uses the stories of individuals in order to illustrate the attitudes and assumptions of a society at a given period.

Cobb's new work explores story the terrible "uncrossable divergence of fates . . . between German soldier and French civilian" in Occupied France during two world wars. In the first period, that of 1914-1918, he focuses on the industrial belt of towns up against the Belgian border in northeastern France. Here, in, Lille and Roubaix, "the proud, arrogant, insolent, impeccable, shining soldiers of October 1914" are transformed, not without compassion on the part of the locals, into the "cynical, fatalistic, resigned and listless" occupiers of 1918. It is a lunar landscape, especially during the bitter winter of 1917-18. Gunfire echoes from the front only 20 miles away, the ceaseless trains bring supplies over a network of rail lines constructed by gangs of forced labor--"young men and girls . . . sixteen and over, picked up street by street, in the course of night sweeps carried out by the Feldgendarmerei, the feared and detested" military police, "recognizable from their tall green collars of their tunics, always accompanied by their huge Alsatians." Yet in the cold and hunger, humanity flowers. There are reciprocal favors, exchanges of cigarettes and brandy, a black market, liaisons between young Marie and lonesome Fritz. And the longer the war lasts, the closer are the relations between the two, until in Paris they speak darkly of the boches du Nord, of Frenchmen who are German sympathizers and collaborationists.

In the second period, World War II, he explores the reception Paris gave its conquerors. The metropolis, with its social complexity, is a much more diffuse subject, and Cobb's method is not quite as effective. A startling memory of the survivors of those years (which Cobb, admiring all Gallic manifestations of the curious, the eccentric or the unexpected, relates with relish) is how Paris' rats took to the streets during the dark nights of the German curfew.

With infinite sympathy, Cobb accumulates his images and vignettes. He makes no accusations of wrongdoing. There is no time today for rancor, for in the end we are all dead, he seems to say. Would it not have been the same in England, if it were to be occupied in a future war?, he asks. "Would not school caps still perch on the round heads of schoolboys?. . . . Would not cricket caps, along with the game itself, be encouraged, even patronized, by the occupier, in an effort to prove that things were much as usual. . . . I leave these hypotheses to novelists such as Kingsley Amis and Len Deighton. But let us not be deceived into believing, in terms of our fortunate past, that the the history of (that time), especially in its insistence on an apparent, but in fact contrived, continuity, has nothing to teach us."

Readers of history who expect a straightforward narration of fact and analysis will not appreciate Cobb's impressionistic historical method, with its nuances and hesitancies. But as an imaginative reconstruction of the past, it is very fine stuff indeed. The insertion of a glossary (Cobb, as always, flaunts an enviable bilingualism), which previous books have lacked, is most useful. ON BRITAIN. By Ralf Dahrendorf. University of Chicago Press. 200 pp. Paperback, $6.95

AN ITALIAN on Europe, an American on Germany, an Englishman on France, and here, with Ralf Dahrendorf, a German on Britain: perhaps outsiders (the example of de Tocqueville comes to mind) see plainer than natives. With the author of On Britain we expect a lot, for, although a German, he is the director of the famed London School of Economics, a position that guarantees him an eager audience for a critique of Britain's economic decline. And, at first, in the kind of charming personal preface that now seems to be obligatory in England, much seems promising.

Dahrendorf makes no apologies for loving a country so hospitable to a young student, a former enemy, in 1948. But despite an engaging prose style, this is a gloomy work. After a survey of Britain's strengths and weaknesses, Dahrendorf remains pessimistic: "there is no indication whatsoever of unemployment being reduced significantly, inflation abating seriously, and above all of the economy of Britain returning to the growth trail." And Dahrendorf seems to have no positive program to offer to remedy the British malaise, other than cosmetic constitutional changes, like a bill of rights and proportional representation in parliament, and the creation of a think tank, somewhat similar to our Brookings Institution. This is a social scientist's tepid prescription, and however commendable his desire to increase the "life chances" of Britons, his treatise disappoints.