We helped devastate, conquer and rebuild Germany, and since then we have been bonded to the free Federal Republic, though the Germans wish they didn't have to remind us so often about that close link.

That's the strong impression I got after a week of meeting with German political leaders, who still count on essential military protection from the United States, but are willing to devote a bigger piece of their rich economy to the defense of Europe.

There is a marked ambivalence in West Germany about the enormous communist force to the east. The Germans want to be protected against it, at the same time increasing an already sizable trade with communist nations, including the Soviet Union, and lessening tensions in the process.

German leaders, particularly Christian Democrats, like to remind Americans that the Soviets now have nuclear parity, and actually have superiority in medium-range strike missiles, the SS20 kind, targeted for Europe. They point to the new Soviet missile-launching submarines in the Baltic, the big Soviet Navy and overwhelming conventional forces.

There is concern here that the Soviets, without firing a shot, can intimidate Europe into splitting with the United States, and thus break the NATO alliance. The obvious remedy to such strategy of cautious aggression is for the West to build its conventional forces and develop a Theater Nuclear Force, meaning installation of new anti-Soviet nuclear weapons in Belgium and the Netherlands as well as in West Germany.

The Germans don't question that military balance with the Soviets can be restored, but they are worried about U.S. resolve and consistency. A hawk like Alfred Dregger, wounded four times in World War II and now a Christian Democratic Party official, can be moved to the assessment that "Afghanistan may be the last chance for the Free World to stop Soviet expansionism."

What bothers Germans about the United States is what they describe as our "inconsistency." Richard von Weizsacker, vice president of Bundestag, tried to be gentle as he described how Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher personally advised the German political leadership that President Carter would continue pushing deployment of the neutron bomb. Then, after Chancellor Helmut Schmidt stuck his neck out by winning support for this controversial weapon, Charter changed his mind, leaving Schmidt up the creek.

"Mr. Christopher also came to us when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan," Weizsacker said, "and stated that his government did not plan a boycott of the Olympics. We were shocked when President Carter suddenly called for such a boycott."

Now the Germans, whose notion of energy conservation allows them to drive 90, 100 and 110 mph on the autobahns while fastidiously compacting garbage to be burned for heat or power, are not always the model of consistency. After all, 25 percent of their foreign trade is with East European communist states, and following the crises in Iran and Afghanistan, the Germans waffled on the boycott and invoked no sanctions against their communist customers.

Still, West Germany will increase its funding of NATO forces this year, realizing it is unfortunate that any NATO discussions tend to be academic and NATO representatives aren't always plugged into the seats of power in their government.

West Germany is also providing more aid to help stabilize Turkey and advocates a move by the United States to cultivate the Islamic world to stimulate its intrinsic anti-Soviet impulses.

While the Germans wish that the Carter administration were more tidy, more reliable, they also hanker for the good old days when the Americans who vanquished them in World War II remained on their soil to lead and encourage them. There is nostalgia here among many leaders for the era of Gen. Lucius Clay, John McCloy and even Nixon-Kissinger.

But those were leaders of one generation ago, and now West Germany finds it necessary to assert itself in Europe and in relations with the United States. Historically, European nations were apprehensive about any boldness from Germany, and for good reason. But today, even the French don't seem to mind. The Germans have been tactful on this development, I might say.

The Germans are often dark-thinkers and heavy hitters, as their music, literature and wartime performance demonstrate. They caused and experienced enormous suffering in World War II. And though many of their upcoming leaders were in knee-pants or weren't even born yet in the World War II period, they are more mindful of that tragedy and political violence than most Americans of the same age.

I was struck by this at a conference here arranged by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Heritage Foundation. On my left sat Hanns-Eberhardt Schleyer, 35, whose father, once chairman of Mercdes-Benz, was murdered by the leftist, revolutionary Baader-Meinhof gang in 1977. On my right sat Count Graf von Stauffenberg, 42, whose father led the unsuccessful assassination plot against Hitler in 1944 and was executed only hours later by the SS and hung by his thumbs.