It was still dark on the morning of Sept. 1, 1939, when Lt. Adolf Galland, 27, climbed into the cockpit of his fighter-bomber. You could see the blue flame leaping up from the plane's engine as it warmed up, he recalls. At dawn, he and his Luftwaffe squadronmates took off, heading east, to surprise and smash the Polish army. The war was on.

Manfred Rommel, 10, was at school when Hitler's Wehrmacht, with his father, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, at the front, raced across the Polish border. "I was very inspired that war had begun," Rommel remembers. "It was quite a sensation."

When the end came for Hitler's Reich in April 1945, the young Rommel was a 15-year-old flakhelfer , helping loan anti-aircraft guns, and then, for six months, a French prisoner of war.

Today, at 50, Manfred Rommel, the son of "The Desert Fox," is the mayor of Stuttgart, a moderate in the conservative Christian Democratic Party, a civil libertarian and one of the most thoughtful men in German politics.

Adolf Galland became a fighter pilot on the western front. He shot down 104 Allied planes, became a general and head of the Luftwaffe's fighter arm at 29. Eventually he was fired as a "defeatist" for challenging the strategy of his boss, Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering. After the war, he was an American prisoner for two years, and then went to Argentina as a consultant to that country's air force.

Today, at 67, Galland operates a successful aviation consulting business in the Bonn suburb of Bad Godesberg. His clients have included a number of American firms -- Northrop, Sikorsky and United Technology.

Galland is not the only former fighter pilot to survive the war and find success in the new Germany that was shaped by the West. Walter Scheel, who has just stepped down after five years as West Germany's president, was a Luftwaffe pilot. Karl-Fried Nordmann, a former fighter wing commander with Galland, is now president of Mercedes-Benz of North America. Theodore Lindemann, another fellow wing commander, is chairman of the board of Riedel de Haen, a large chemical firm.

"When we took off that September dawn 40 years ago," Galland recalls, "we were told it was a military operation and not the beginning of a world war." When Hitler attacked Russia in June 1941, Galland's fears were calmed by the first "tremendous victories" of Hitler's forces. But by 1942, he says, the more thoughtful military men knew the war was already being lost.

For the young Rommel, back at home, that revelation came much later. He remembers how powerfully he was influenced by the Nazis' propaganda in those early years of the war. "In the history books of that former time . . . in the Hitler Youth . . . war was presented as a period where high human qualities proved great achievements, and I must admit that as a young boy, as long as German armies were victorious, we, the majority of us, were quite inspired."

To his teen-age mind, the elite Nazi SS Guard had special appeal, and young Rommel wanted to join. "They had better uniforms than the regular army and seemed much more elegant. It was a romantic idea for many people, like joining a group of pirates: good soldiers, hard people, adventurers. But, fortunately, my father did a good job of disillusioning me."

By the beginning of 1943, after Allied bombings had begun, he first began to have doubts. "I had doubts because my father had doubts, and they were not hidden from me.

"But for me, whether we were victorious or not was still not decisive.As many young people did in Germany, I thought we had to be faithful, to serve anyway. Inspiration, you know, is made by irrational slogans. The majority of those young people going off to the first and second world wars didn't know why they went. They thought it was their duty, and many young people have a tendency to act against their personal interests and think that to be glorious. They are very simple victims for propaganda."

By early 1944, as entire cities crumbled under Allied bombs, "we began to understand that war was no fun, though we still were not very frightened."

At his anti-aircraft gun position near Ulm, the crews stood helpless with their 37-millimeter guns, captured from the Russians, which could not reach the Allied planes at high altitude. "So we just watched as thousands of bombers came undisturbed across Germany. We were disappointed. We wanted to fire."

What finally changed young Rommel's mind was the death of his father in 1944. Hitler, believing that the field marshal was part of a plot to kill him, forced Rommel to commit suicide. "When my father was killed, at first I was a little ashamed that he might have been a traitor. I needed some days to think. But then I thought that he was right, and I was on the other side, forever."

When it was over, the German nation that had, in large measure, done its duty and obediently marched off to war lay in ruins. "There was disillusionment so complete that even the values were destroyed, because there was no word for a value -- faithfulness, loyalty, respect -- that had not been misused by Hitler. So it left us with a deep distrust of people, with no values, no material hope and with a belief that we would live for many years in misery," Rommel recalls. "We had no feelings for government. Democracy was something completely uncommon for us and it looked very weak.

"But then something happened, maybe for the first time in history. Despite the fact that Germany had started the war, that the Allies had found the concentration camps, that the Germans themselves had begun to understand that they were responsible, and that maybe it was better for us to lose rather than win under Hitler, the American, British and French military governments were very human.

"They gave something to the people, and we were not accustomed to governments doing that. The Allies gave the impression they wanted to help us, and it was the first important turning point. They gave people liberties, material aid, let people say what they wanted to and rather quickly everything was better than our most positive dreams."

At a private dinner in Berlin not long ago, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 60, talked of the same reaction he had as a young officer returning from Hitler's battered army.

"When we came back, we were greatly impressed with ideas we had never heard before and were now being exposed to by the English, French and Americans. We needed pillars to lean on and they sounded like good ones."

By 1949, the Cold War had turned Germany "very quickly into a partner rather than just a defeated country," as Rommel puts it. The Allies began to rebuild and harness the western half of Germany's industry and its 66 million people as part of the newly forming Atlantic alliance.

The devastation left by the war meant that new factories would have to be built, and these modern industrial plants became the basis of the country's extraordinary postwar recovery. The decimation of the generation that had led Germany into the war meant that the postwar jobs would go to younger men who could move into positions of leadership far more rapidly than was traditional, and that older Germans who came through the de-Nazification process could also go back into key positions.

To Rommel, the paradox of those postwar days was that amid the ruins of this defeated country, "never had a German generation so many chances on the material side. Thirty percent of the older generation was dead. There were no experienced people around. So they gave the jobs to young people. We could make a career and move up fast. There was also a new generation of disciplined soldiers and former officers who had learned about big programs and who entered industry after the war."

While Allied tribunals punished some of the leading industrialists who fed Hitler's war machine with weapons, materiel and slave labor, many of those same companies -- Krupp, Thyssen, Siemens, BASF, Flick and AEG, to name just a handful -- still dot the list of major German and international businesses today, restored and flourishing under postwar politics. The managements are new, but family ties remain in many cases. About 10,000 former Nazis were convicted of war crimes and punished, or are still awaiting trial, but many times that number were cleared of anything more than nominal party membership and reentered German society, in some cases rising to high government or political positions.

In short, the German generation that produced, fought and survived World War II was far from totally rejected in the postwar West. In neighboring countries there are still lingering wounds from the savagery wrought by the Nazis.Yet even there, things are changing.

The mistrust, says Rommel, is fading. "I don't think Germans have ever been accepted more friendly in this century than they are now. Of course people remember in France, Poland, Holland and Russia. But they are much more prepared to pardon than ever before, even more prepared than the Germans were at certain periods in our history. There is a tremendous tendency to begin again.

"Without doubt, we were responsible for all those bad things. But maybe it was necessary in history that there was such a cruel war to awaken in so many people the necessity of living in peace."