When Helmut Kohl became chancellor of West Germany last October, many people saw him as an amiable politician who was unlikely to make waves at home or abroad. Yet less than a year later it seems evident that his chancellorship marks the closing of the postwar era in his country.

The drama of the Kohl era is not in the personality of the 53-year-old leader but in what Kohl himself signifies and in what he has begun to say about the future of the Federal Republic. Already he has caused an unexpected stir by talking openly, and without embarrassment, about his hopes for the eventual reunification of Germany -- a subject that was long suppressed in official West German rhetoric.

In a sense, Kohl is the first real postwar West German chancellor. Fifteen years old when the war in Europe ended, he can remember the ruins, the CARE packages, and the Marshall Plan. His memory is long enough to have instilled a healthy appreciation of the security and prosperity that close ties to the West have brought to his once-destroyed country. In his meetings with Soviet President Yuri Andropov in Moscow last week, Kohl bluntly stressed his country's inextricable bonds with the Western Alliance and quashed any talk about a drift toward neutralism.

But the chancellor is also young enough to disassociate himself from the guilt and anguish of his parents' generation. As chancellor, he represents a break in the line of postwar leaders, from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt, who subordinated yearnings for a more independent Germany to the goal of restoring West Germany to the ranks of respected, peaceful nations.

This has immense implications, not only for Germany but also for East-West relations. It creates risks for both superpowers. A divided Germany, with each half firmly rooted in and exceptionally loyal to its particular bloc, was the core around which the postwar understanding between East and West evolved. Any change in the status quo, or even talk of change, is sure to have unpredictable repercussions.

This is not to say that Kohl's musings about reunification mean that a major shift in Bonn's traditional allegiances are in the immediate offing. But the changing nature of German politics makes clear that the time when Bonn's policies were exclusively centered on the NATO military alliance and the West European Common Market is nearing an end.

Circumstances have much to do with Kohl's unexpected impact. For more than 40 million West Germans born or raised after the war -- two-thirds of the population -- the period of political awakening has taken in the Vietnam War, the student rebellion, Watergate, the decline of detente and the nuclear arms race.

While their parents are avidly pro-American, younger Germans are far less so. In general they are more critical of both Washington and Moscow. As a "postwar German," Kohl serves as an ideal bridge to this "successor generation" of people not directly involved in the disaster of the Third Reich.

Politically, Kohl is astute enough to understand the opportunities that this provides. He has displayed an uncanny knack in more than 30 years in politics for embracing grass roots movements. Lately, he has tried to reach out to the millions of young Germans who support anti-nuclear and ecological issues by speaking of "peace with fewer and fewer weapons" and advocating urgent measures to combat the acid rain threat to forests.

Yet Kohl's broadest appeal may lie in his ability to express patriotism for "the Fatherland" and his willingness to hold out the hope of German reunification on behalf of majority of Germans who had nothing to do with the war.

Significantly perhaps, while his predecessor Helmut Schmidt liked to impress foreigners with his fluency in English, and spoke English at international summits, Kohl speaks no foreign languages. When asked how he communicates with foreign leaders, he replies unaffectedly, "In German, of course."

Kohl knows that a peaceful reconciliation with East Germany will not occur during his term in office, or probably even in his lifetime. But as the proportion of Germans born after the war grows, the political value of the reunification theme will become greater. Increasingly, young Germans ask why their future must be mortgaged to historical guilt. In many ways, West Germany is undergoing a sea change in generational politics and its neighbors will have to adapt.

In Moscow last week, Kohl struck some chords that must have sounded somewhat jarring to a Kremlin gerontocracy deeply imbued with nightmarish memories of German aggression.

Kohl rejected charges of a revival of right wing nationalism in West Germany. But then he revealed at a press conference that he told Andropov the Federal Republic still could never abandon the ultimate goal of peaceful reunification between East and West Germany.

"I asked him, 'What would you say if your capital were divided, if the entire Soviet Union were split in two," Kohl said. "Would you not consider it your duty to stress that in the course of history it would be united again?"

Kohl's remarks unleashed repercussions not only in Moscow but also across Western Europe. In Bonn, the chancellery was showered with approving telegrams from Germans grateful and relieved that a leader would broach sentiments they share, yet have kept bottled up for so long.

A few newspapers chided Kohl for needlessly antagonizing the Soviets, but their criticism was swamped by a strong majority that found such candid expressions of patriotic fervor both healthy and positive.

Nothing quite like this happened even under the chancellorship of Willy Brandt, whose courageous opposition to the Hitler regime helped him to take steps toward a reconciliation with the East. The time was not right; and Brandt himself felt that his generation was too burdened by the war to embrace the vision of reunification.

Even though the preamble to the West German constitution calls for reunification, "We learned to keep silent about (it) even though it has never been out of our minds," as former chancellor Schmidt said in a recent interview.

Under Kohl, the tendency to revive a German national consciousness is likely to assume subtle shapes. It will not take the form of a bold resurgence of nationalism, though it may be portrayed as such in alarmist quarters. Some French analysts, for example, have warned that Germany's quest for self-identity could take this form -- or could move the country toward a more neutralist policy in Central Europe. More probably, it will be closer to what historian Fritz Stern has called "German Gaullism." Put simply, it would involve a greater willingness to advance and protect primarily German ininterests.

Throughout the 1980s, this "Germany first" approach is likely to accelerate because of three important trends in the foreign policy environment around East and West Germany.

The most fundamental change is that the existing empires, or zones of influence, claimed by Washington and Moscow in Europe have become less cohesive and more diffuse.

A second important cause is the weakening of the European community and the fading of hopes for a united Europe that could absorb the political energies and idealism of Germans and serve as a substitute for a united Germany.

As the prospects for "building Europe" have diminished, attention has begun to turn to protecting national interests. German politicians still proclaim their faith in the European ideal. But the British and French have put domestic goals above all else, and German officials say they can only respond in kind.

Related to all this is the emergence of West Germany as the strongest country in Western and Central Europe.

By developing the strongest conventional army in Central Europe, the West Germans have become less dependent on protection by western allies. That protection asked how his based increasingly on the nuclear deterrent, which seems to many Germans to be detractinluence over developments in th by wieldi its economic and fi400 million credit, with no strings attached, to help East Germany with its chronic debt problem. West Germany is the Soviet Union's number one trade artner and a leitmotif of Kohl's trip to Moscow was to preserve trade and economic relations through the difficult months ahead as the contrrsy over deployment of U.S.-built missiles in West Germany later this year approaches a climax.

A failure of arms control talks in Genevaengthen the chorus of distrustful critics in the Federal Republic who contend that Washington never wanted a compromise and desired all alonll new nuclear weapons on European soil. As some have predicted, it could be a "hot autumn" of violent demonstloyment of the missiles. If it is, the effect will be to further weaken the political cohesiveness of the alliaith in American policies is rapidly eroding in Western Europe, Soviet credibility in the Eastern bloc rests oan extended military occupation. The anemic economies in the east can expect little help in the next few years from the Soviet Union, which desperately needs tocentrate on economic reforms at home.

Of the big three powers in Europe, only West Germany now seems capable of enhancing its diplomatic itish Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand appear too preoccupied with domestic economic trouto devote much effort to new initiatives abroad.

At the same time Moscow's traditional conduit to the West, through Paris, has een disrupted by tensions with the Socialist-led government.

The juxtaposition of these events has thrust Kohl into a fortuitous position as the key intermedbetween East and West. His stature could, of course, be undermined unexpectedly by any number of developments, including the political unresseems certain to come this fall, a worsening of the recession, or some new East-West crisis. But barring the unforeseen, and given continued disarray among the oppositionDemocrats, Kohl could remain in power until 1990, and even beyond.

With 17 million Germans living under comy trade channels established with the East bloc, Kohl is keenly interested in pursuing a restoration of detente. He has persistently advocata Reagan-Andropov summit to improve the dialogue between Moscow and Washington. This fits in well with his ove ultimate reunification can only occur through "peaceful means," as the final great consequence of detente. can safely navigate his own brand of Ostpolitik, even in a period of mounting East-West tensions, because his relations with Reagae based on a friendly and secure footing.

"We are not wanderers between two worlds," Kohl often says. "Our place is by the side of friend allies in the West."

But such reassuring homilies should not be misconstrued as a blanket endorsement of policies made in Washington. itive geographical position, Germans are subjected to constant buffeting by powerful forces along the East-West fault line that require uniqd sometimes contradictory responses.

Between the wars, in 1934, Charles de Gaulle described the Germans as "a bundleked how h of strong and troubled instincts . . . a sublime green ocean where the net hoists a tangle of monsters and trea0 years later, as a new post-war generation of Germans assumes positions of power, that deep, impenetrable sea remains just as murky.