If Earth's beauty is but a breath and man is but a shadow, if all flesh is as grass, why such anxiety when Germany's governments do not last forever? Because, as Bismarck said, God put Germany in the middle of the house, and Europe's house has been unlivable when Germany has been unsettled.

The Federal Republic is only 33 years old. Its politics has been agreeably bland. An American axiom is that healthy politics take place within the 40-yard lines, never surging far from the center. Postwar German politics has been like that. Another axiom is that in the healthiest democracies, two major parties go from opposition to governing with metronomic regularity. Germany's political metronome has now ticked for the third time in 33 years. The first tick was in 1949, when the Christian Democrats took control with Konrad Adenauer. The second was in 1969, when the Social Democrats and Willy Brandt came to power. An average of one tick every 11 years does not constitute wild oscillation.

In his elegant history, "The Germans," Gordon Craig says that Adenauer was "the first statesman who was able to overcome the unconscious tendency of his countrymen to believe that leaders could only be taken seriously when they wore uniforms." The new chancellor, Helmut Kohl, is a German Jerry Ford: not a man on horseback. The immediate cause of his coming to power is reassuringly recognizable -- the malfunctioning of a welfare state's economy.

But to a wary world, Germany is ominous even -- especially? -- when normal. Perhaps normality is abnormal; perhaps outward calm is achieved only by ruthless repression of national traits that grow in strength when submerged and must eventually burst forth with redoubled strength.

Unfair? Almost certainly. And yet . . .

"The 20th century," writes Hugh Thomas, "should have belonged to Germany." It began with Germany sitting in a strategic position, on vast natural resources, with a growing population gifted in every sphere of modern life -- culture, medicine, science, military affairs. But in the century's ninth decade, Germany is divided; even East Germany's eastern border is, in places, west of where Germany's frontiers were in the 12th century; and there have been nearly four decades of war-crimes trials, which continue.

Bonn, the provincial town that still seems a merely provisional capital, symbolizes the fact that the continuity of the German state -- the idea of Germany -- is still at issue. There is a sense, as Henry Kissinger has written, that the Federal Republic is "like an imposing tree with shallow roots, vulnerable to sudden gusts of wind." If the wind is rising, that is because through all its postwar life Germany has been, as Kissinger says, "an economy in search of political purpose."

Germany's slight shift to the right this month under the Christian Democrats may be much less significant than the probable lurch to the left by the Social Democrats in opposition. Helmut Schmidt was impatient with his intellectual inferiors, who included most of the persons he had to deal with. He was not an ideal ally. He seemed to believe there is no alternative to detente -- a belief that makes d,etente untenable. But he tried to hold his party, against its growing inclination, with the West. His departure may mark the exhaustion of socialist (or Social-Democratic) anti- communism in Northern Europe.

Parties of the left no longer furnish forth the likes of Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in Britain's postwar Labor government. The next time Germany's political metronome ticks, the Social Democratic Party that is returned to power may be sunk in anti-Americanism and neutralism.

Adenauer, a Catholic Rhinelander, thought of "the West" as a cultural tradition extending back to Charlemagne. Germany was weak, and Adenauer welded it to the Atlantic alliance. Today, German nationalism, on the left and the right, may seek expression in a Bismarckian policy of maneuvering between East and West.

U.S. power, including U.S. troops in Europe, gives Germany the base that enables Germany to negotiate with Moscow. So the United States is in danger of being the indispensable ingredient in a policy inimical to U.S. interests. Congress, desperate to find alternatives to economizing at the expense of domestic programs, is watching. If Congress concludes that U.S. power is an umbrella in the shade of which the weed of neutralism flourishes, the umbrella might be snapped shut with reckless haste. Then Germany, more vulnerable than Bismarck's Germany ever was, would be left with Bismarckian policy, and no Bismarck.