GERMANY'S divided political right has conspired with the vanishing political center to create a new parliamentary majority and a new "center-right" government. Despite names and appearances, however, West Germany is on an unsteady course to the left.

As he made his bitter exit from the chancellorship, Helmut Schmidt declared that the demise of his coalition government marked the end of an epoch. Perhaps, but the new epoch bears striking resemblance to the old. Germany is still led by a government -- albeit a new one -- that appears not to enjoy majority support in the country. Political and social conflicts assure the conservatives of a turbulent return to power. The prospect of a radical electoral realignment also means that the conservatives' tenure may be brief.

West Germany has a new government because Hans-Dietrich Genscher split his small Free Democratic Party, taking one faction into alliance with Helmut Kohl's conservatives. These political intrigues in Bonn outraged many Germans, not least because Genscher campaigned in 1980 on a promise to continue the center-left coalition with Schmidt.

Recent events, including two important local elections, suggest that the Free Democrats now face national oblivion. If there is a new majority in Germany, it appears to consist of an alliance -- still far from consummated -- between the Social Democrats and the Alternative-Green movement to its left.

The Greens are an anti-nuclear, environmentalist and neutralist group that won 8 percent of the vote in the recent local elections in Hamburg and Hesse, giving them the balance of power in both local legislatures. The Free Democrats got less than 5 percent of the vote in both those elections, and did particularly badly in Hesse just after Genscher announced he was abandoning Schmidt. Under West Germany's system of proportional representation, the Free Democrats were eliminated from both those local legislatures. This is just what could happen to them in the new national elections now promised for next March, though Kohl may try to avoid holding elections so soon.

The rise of the Greens has been interpreted by the West's official spokesmen and unofficial experts (who invariably think alike) as "destabilizing." They apparently mean that large numbers of Germans vote for persons who would make awkward guests at one of the foreign policy dinners at which our elites reassure themselves that the world is as it should be, if not more so.

The demise of the political center, the collapse of Schmidt's coalition, the imminent disappearance of the Free Democrats and the real possibility that the Greens will hold the national balance of power confront us with a new West Germany.

The Social Democrats and their allies have been struggling for nearly two centuries for democracy in Germany. They have struggled against army, bureaucracy, church, empire and many of their countrymen. Recently they have defended civil liberties and sought to follow Willy Brandt's call to "dare more democracy."

Their most recent opponents were the two major parties in the new coalition, the Christian Democratic Union and Franz Josef Strauss' Bavarian Christian Social Union. These parties certainly accept parliamentary democracy, but they take a narrow view of the constitutional limits of dissent.

They have assiduously cultivated Germany's equivalents of the Moral Majority, who have Bavarian or Rhenish or Lower Saxon accents, are Catholic as well as Protestant, and are revulsed by the "excesses" of cultural emancipation, political liberty and social permissiveness. In Weimar Germany, philistines in the privincial small towns, enraged at an avant-garde Berlin, called on the Nazis to purify German culture. Today a new avant- garde is everywhere in education and the media; the angry provincials feel unsafe in front of their own television sets. And they cannot decide whom they most hate -- American black soldiers in their taverns, foreign workers, or critical German intellectuals.

The White House has pronounced the new regime "our kind of guys," but Chancellor Kohl moved quickly to mark his distance from Washington. He went to Paris to emphasize the unity of the Europeans. He declared that good relations with the Soviet Union and with the other German state, East Germany, are on his agenda.

American policymakers, not for the first time, may have missed the essential point. Even those Germans who insist on the Federal Republic's loyalty to the Atlantic Alliance have implicit reservations. Recently many Social Democrats, some Free Democrats and the Greens have made those reservations explicit. Kohl's initial behavior in power suggests, it is would be a mistake to take the pro-Americanism of the conservative parties at face value.

Some conservatives have a distorted, narrow view of America (rather like our own president's). Others insist on Europe's distinctive mission. Germany's Catholic cardinals do not oppose nuclear weapons, but they abhor "Dallas."

The economic crisis that propelled Schmidt from office has undermined the social contract between capital and labor that produced the imperfect but tangible consensus of the past 14 years. Meanwhile, the social grouping to which the Social Democrats appealed during those 14 years has been changing. White-collar, professional and technical workers now outnumber industrial workers, but this larger group has divided political loyalties. Some within it support the parties of the center and right, others have provided recruits for the Social Democrats' own radical left, still others constitute the electorate of the Alternative and Green movements.

At the same time, the more stolid leadership of the unions is on its way out, soon to be replaced by a newer generation of unionists, who speak the language of class conflict. In brief, the measured politics that Schmidt represented is out of date.

Schmidt's foreign policies were also overtaken by events. His desired role as a mediator between the superpowers became increasingly difficult. In the last two years his American allies launched (at least rhetorically) a campaign of confrontation with the Soviet Union that alienated many Germans. Many of Schmidt's old supporters (and others too) now believe that continued adherence to American alliance policies, particularly including the proposed installation of new nuclear missiles in Germany, represents a threat to their country's survival.

Schmidt will leave the next leader of the Social Democrats two unresolved problems. The first is to fashion a program for a modernized social democracy. A new Social Democratic leadership will have to consider the ideas of the Greens. The leading contender to succded Schmidt, Hans-Jochen Vogel, as mayor and now party leader in West Berlin, has conspicuously entered into dialogue with the movement.

The second unresolved question for the future leadership of Schmidt's and Willy Brandt's Social Democrats is Germany's role in the NATO alliance. Growing numbers of Germans are prepared for a fundamental reevaluation of their nation's integration with the West. The other of Schmidt's possible successors is Johannes Rau, the minister- president of Northern Rhineland-Westphalia. He began his political career 25 years ago as a member of the All German People's Party, which advocated a demilitarized and neutral status for Germany.

Schmidt himself is reluctant to move in the direction of more socialism and more neturalism. He is immensely popular and respected, but he cannot lead the Social Democrats from their right. His departure from the leadership may be a matter of months.

"The operation was successful, but the Free Democrats are dead." This was the comment of the most liberal of the Free Democratic leaders, former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, as he left the meeting at which a new coalition with the Christian Democratic and Christian Social Unions was ratified. Baum was one of 23 Free Democratic deputies who refused to follow Genscher into the new coalition; only 30 did follow.

It is easy enough to blame the party's leader, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and his singular fusion of tactical subtlety and strategic incompetence for the imminent demise of the Free Democrats. It is an achievement of sorts to have reduced the party's vote by two- thirds since 1980. Genscher's convincing lack of principle, however, makes him preternaturally responsive to changes in the political climate. He understood that a center-left coalition is just what present circumstances do not favor. So he endured the reproaches of many in his party and the contempt of some of his new conservative allies to offer the right a return to power -- without the tedious formality of new elections, which Genscher fears more than anyone else.

Despite the charm of office, the right suffers from pervasive disorientation. They had hoped, after 14 years in opposition, to return to power with an absolute majority and their own program. But that synthesis of technocratic vision and traditional values, mixed with a dash of Christian social doctrine, promised by conservative ideologues has not materialized. The common denominator uniting the Christian-Democratic and Christian- Social parties is their desire for office.

Konrad Adenauer developed the slogan: "No Experiments." Helmut Kohl's leadership of the opposition has been characterized by the motto: "No Ideas." There remains a large margin of uncertainty about how the new ministers will apply themselves to the concrete tasks of governance.

They cannot conduct a wholesale attack on the welfare state without abandoning all hope of making inroads into the Social Democratic working-class vote -- which they must do if they are to have an enduring majority. They have even fewer ideas than the Social Democrats on how to stimulate investment and modernize industry. To be sure, the stock market rose when they assumed office -- but that is the best economic indicator they are likely to boast of for some time.

The conservatives talked of a return to a society of individual achievement, but it is unlikely that they will be able to generate jobs for millions of unemployed, particularly the young. They may proceed with nuclear plant construction, which will also guarantee employment for the police.

In foreign affairs, the two parties of the right have expressed rigorous loyalty to the Atlantic Alliance which they will not put into practice. Franz-Josef Strauss, it should be recalled, once described himself as Germany's premier Gaullist. The Protestants in the party leadership have often echoed Schmidt by insisting on Germany's unique geopolitical role in Central Europe.

As the prospect of ministerial responsibility has approached, the conservatives' defense experts have been at pains to modify their support for the deployment of new nuclear missiles on German soil. Millions of their own voters share the disquiet of the peace movement at the prospect of nuclear war. Millions more are not prepared to accept a break in relations with the other German state, where their relatives live. The last thing these parties want is to give the Social Democrats the opportunity, in the next or subsequent elections, to attack them as the "missile party" -- or for insufficient attention to German national interests. The most likely prospect if for indefinite delay in the deployment of the new missiles.

Strauss will emerge as the strong man of a new coalition. Concerned with his place in history, he may explore the possibilities of a large arrangement with the Soviet Union in ways which may make our national security community regret its quarrels with the Social Democrats. An accommodation with the Russians would be, after all, in the tradition of the German right. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment, we can recall Strauss' words about Dr. Kohl: "I am not bothered by whostia is chancellor under me."

The Alternative and Green movements are loose coalitions: they include old leftists, new leftists, environmentalists, feminists, anti-nuclear protesters, and advocates of decentralization and participatory democracy.

The striking thing about these movements is how little money they need; they have enthusiasm and ideas. They attract the votes of 30 to 40 percent of the young. Their adherents share a profound scepticism about the conventional parties.

One of their leaders, Petra Kelly, has said that they are not in politics to send ministers into government. Another, a Hamburg city councillor, last month negotiated in the morning with Hamburg's Social Democratic mayor on supporting his government, and in the afternoon was arrested for squatting in a vacant house. Clearly, there is little immediate danger that the Greens will be corrupted by routine.

The Social Democrats remain the movements' only possible allies. An alliance, even a governmental one, between the two in the next parliamant is a possibility.

Finally, there is yet another party in German politics, the people of the other German state. For the moment, the East German regime seems firmly in control. But the authoritarianism, boredom and monotony of life in East Germany have alienated many, including substantial numbers of the young. The one institution the Communist Party cannot control, the Protestant Church, has sheltered a peace movement. With a number of dissident writers and thinkers, thousands of younger Protestants have protested the regime's militarization and its unconditional allegiance to the Soviet Union. The East German regime has made it clear that it will not allow a peace movement to assume the dimensions of Solidarity in Poland, but spontaneous popular movements are often unresponsive to command.

In several places along the West Berlin side of the wall, there are inscriptions in German: "Superpowers, Get out of Germany." A large peace movement in East Germany could convince tens of millions of West Germans to seek just that objective.