In West Germany, "peace" is in fashion. The new peace movement has 5 million members, and nearly everybody wants to get on the bandwagon. "Nobody can afford not to," a conservative member of the German parliament told me. "We are all for peace today."

The peace movement is the most powerful populist force to emerge in post-war Germany, but its prospects are uncertain. It might radically and permanently change German society. Or it might fade away in 1984.

Its future will depend largely on events this autumn, when huge demonstrations are expected to protest the deployment of new American missiles on West German soil. What these demonstrations will be like is unclear. Until now the the peace movement has fostered all kinds of demonstrations. Where one is peaceful, another on the next street may erupt into violence -- also in the name of peace.

I have been traveling all over Germany talking to people who consider themselves part of this movement. They are a loose and diverse coalition united for the moment by the stationing of new American missiles on their territory. The peace movement has no national leadership. Yet it has provided a grass-roots base for the tiny Green Party, which recently was elected to parliament.

Marieluise Beck-Oberdorf, in her mid-30s, is one of the new Greens in parliament. She spent the '70s "doing good." She protested against atomic plants, organized self-help programs for junkies, and developed self- awareness groups to heighten sensitivity to social inequities. "I was concerned with poverty," she said, "but I was no Marxist. Their harsh tone offended me."

Beck-Oberdorf is a gentle person. She dresses for her working day in parliament in a peasant skirt and flat-heeled space sandals. She talks about her father, who was a member of the Nazi Party. "He wasn't courageous enough." As for the church, "It stood silent during the Third Reich while Jews -- even their own faithful -- were slaughtered. I had to look outside the church for spiritual values."

Many pastors of the church agree with her. "We stood by and watched during the Hitler years. We will not be irresponsible again. Today we speak out for peace," a Bonn prelate said.

Beck-Oberdorf has come to the missile issue only recently. "I am educating myself. It's part of my self-awareness program. I am also in psychotherapy.

"I do not believe that guns should defend a system. It's better to be overrun by the Soviet Union than to be defended by atomic weapons. But it wasn't the Russians who invaded in the past. We Germans did it. Twice. I am not afraid of the Russians. They are not placing missiles here.

"I have a view of society. I want to see fewer cars, more green landscape, people working less but earning more. And no weapons. If we have a Green government one day, you'll see it all happen." She then smiled, for the first time. "And maybe a woman chancellor in Germany, too."

Neither Beck-Oberdorf nor any other member of the peace movement mentioned the Soviet Union until questioned specifically. "They've decided," Prof. Richard Lowenthal of Berlin's Free University explained, "that the Russians no longer are coming. The Russians are neither feared nor of any ideological interest. The Soviet Union has somehow become for them both boring and irrelevant."

But "peaceniks" talk a good deal about the United States and of their disappointment that America is no longer their model. Also, they say, American soldiers in Germany behave badly, and Americans are too casual about war.

"How can you accuse us of being anti- American?" Jurgen Schmidt, a language teacher in Frankfurt, asks as we sit in a disco near the university. He wears jeans and a T-shirt and sports almost shoulder-length hair. "Look at me. My clothes. My hair cut. It's the way all of us of my generation learned to dress and eat and play. The music we're listening to. It's all American. We have all become American." "Of course I march with the peace demonstrators. But to criticize American missiles is not to be anti-American. It is to argue with a member of your family."

A rosy-cheeked slip of a girl with exalted green eyes, Evelyn Butter-Berking tells me she is a communist. Two years ago she organized a peace group in the suburbs of Hamburg. "But only four or five of us are communists, and there are about 30 or so in our group."

Butter-Berking is neither interested in the United States ("You treated your Indians so badly") nor the Soviet Union ("I never read Lenin"). "My hero is Che Guevera. In 1977, I finally went to Cuba. It was so exciting. They bring up their children without violence. They don't want material things. Just to learn and study. I'd like us to become more like them. When I came back from Cuba I joined the Communist Party."

She invited me out the following evening to her weekly peace group meeting. Between 8:00 and 8:30 p.m., with the late June sun shooting between the heavy drapes in a second-floor meeting room of the community church, nearly 35 people pull up hard-backed chairs to form a circle. They are mostly girls in their 20s. One pretty one has an amenable boyfriend rubbing her neck. The bearded assistant rector is present. Some young men are there, and a few more-than-middle-aged ladies. Mostly, different people show up each week, I am told.

No one seems to lead the discussion, yet an agenda emerges. It takes an hour to decide who will prepare the sandwiches, make the placards and buy the tickets for the group's next peace demonstration. (It would be 75 miles away, in Hanover, for the annual Evangelical Church convention.) Close to 10 o'clock, a report is given on German arms sales, and a discussion follows on how to persuade arms manufacturers to convert to products of peace. Someone volunteers to write to the uncle of a friend who is on the board of directors of a local weapons factory, inviting him to speak before the peace group.

Only one individual in the group approaches me as we stroll out into the street. He tells me that the CIA-supported Pakistanis in Afghanistan do not fight the Russians so much as burn the local schools and shoot Afghans who lie wounded in the hospital.

Dorothee Solle is a tall, spare church lady in her 50s. She is a professor of theology at the University of Hamburg (and an annual exchange professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.) We met in her sun- drenched living room, filled with books and paintings and musical scores. She wore a hand-embroidered Indian silk blouse.

"The peace movement did not start yesterday, nor even three years ago. We started to protest in the 1950s when the Allies stationed the old short-range nuclear missiles in Germany. It was our own chancellor who sold us Germans out. Konrad Adenauer agreed to make Germany a military power again. That was the price he paid for our economic miracle.

"We lost the battle against the deployment of the short-range missiles in the '50s, but we did win our campaign for alternatives to compulsory military service.

"Pacificism is an honorable tradition in the church. Bishop Martin Niemoller condemned Hitler's militarism and went to jail for it. He started our pacifist movement, Aktion Suehnezeichen (Signs of Atonement), where our young people can gather and do good things and atone for the past.

"We in the church don't actively encourage the peace movement. Every time there is an American article sent to us by American friends on how a nuclear war can be won or be limited, we have 10,000 new friends of peace in this country. The Soviet Union has foresworn the first use of nuclear weapons. Have you?

"There are many more women in the peace movement than men. (The ratio is estimated to be 3 to 1.) We women are mostly a class that is overeducated and underpowered. I have a daughter in the peace movement. We are not a movement of the moment. We represent a new political culture -- and there is no generation gap." More than a dozen young students gathered in casual chairs in the community room of the Aktion Suehnezeichen. It was a slow- tempoed Sunday morning after church, and the large villa in the Berlin outskirts was open to all peace groups for sandwiches and coffee, volleyball in the garden and discussions.

A young man, recently returned from a year of working in Chicago, spoke perfect English. "I could never live in America," he said. "There are too many differences between rich and poor. And so much racism. I prefer to live in Germany."

Three of the group had worked in Israel. ("I had never met a Jew before.") Two others had visited the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. ("I couldn't believe we did such terrible things to them.") Another had just returned from Spain. ("I wanted to see how another new democracy worked.")

In a small town in southwest Germany where the Pershing missiles are to be deployed, a mother and daughter sat together with the local pastor and offered me coffee. "It makes no difference to us that the Pershings will be stationed here," the older woman said. "It makes these weapons no more dangerous here than anywhere else in Germany. This is not a world I brought my daughter up for."

The daughter agreed: "It's against all the teachings of Christ. Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?"

Mothers and daughters as political activist pairs are a phenomenon of the peace movement. So are young people making common cause with the middle-aged and the retired. In 1968, the student movement was an attempt to break with the past: antiestablishment, antisociety, antieverything that was behind them. They wanted a clear break with the generation that they held responsible for the Nazi years.

Today, 15 years later, the younger generation in their 20s no longer sports the uniform of the '60s, the tight blue jeans and T-shirts. The burning eye of the radical is rare among them. Their easy ways and engaging manner are reflected in their softer dress.

"These kids are neither pro-American nor pro-Soviet," a journalist from Der Spiegel magazine explains. "They seem to hark back to another century. Before Hitler. Even before Bismarck. They seem to yearn for a pastoral life, for a Germany before it became centralized and industrialized."

Friedl Drautsberg once felt he was in the eye of history. He rode the wave of the 1968 student rebellion. Working among Social Democrats, together with best-selling novelist Gunter Grass, he helped elect Willy Brandt chancellor in 1969. "We changed society," he said. There could be no peace movement today if we hadn't destroyed the old Germany."

Drautsberg is in his 40s. He still wears tight jeans and sounds weary beyond his years. He looks every inch the species of handsome radical of yesteryear still conserved near Big Sur. Drautsberg runs a Kneipe -- a neighborhood restaurant and bar with a special political atmosphere -- in downtown Bonn.

"It's a pluralistic Kneipe," he says. "I even have a CDU (Christian Democratic) couple that drops in regularly. In the old days only radicals could come to my place.

"We didn't get what we wanted then, but the issues we fought for are accepted today. There are no more ex-Nazis running the government, like the ex-Chancellor (Kurt Georg) Kiesinger. It's we who made them change the school system that educated the kids today. And we made the sexual revolution, too. We got women their liberation, and look what they went and did -- they got rich and independent and voted in the conservatives last March.

"The kids today in the peace movement are softer than we were. But maybe they're good for Germany. Of course I marched with them -- I'm still a left-socialist."

In a daily newspaper published in Hamburg, 11/2 columns were devoted to the evening's schedule of meetings in and around town. Of the 52 notices, on a single day only three -- Alcoholics Anonymous, an art exposition and a health club -- could be described as having nothing to do with the peace movement. There were neighborhood groups, Doctors for Peace, Housewives for Peace, Trade Unionists for Peace, Liberated Women for Peace. These meetings took place on Tuesdays. The next day's newspaper would have a different column of notices.

"What did Germans do before they started attending all these peace meetings?" a university student asked. Having grown up abroad, he was out of the mainstream of German life. The young professor responded, "There was television, sex and spending money. But for us Germans, there must be a less passive, more meaningful life."

The only national organization among the peace groups is the one devoted to women's issues. Christal Berger's group adopted the peace issue in 1981, and it found that the antimilitary posture implicit in the protest against modernized missile deployment made some of the women uncomfortable. After all, until 1981, they had campaigned long and hard -- though unsuccessfully -- to be drafted into the German army. Today they are silent on the issue.

"But the peace movement is not antimilitary," Col. Dieter Kellein says. He was a former defense attache in Washington and is now in the German ministry of defense in Bonn. He is also a member of the peace movement.

"Most of us do not think that Germany should get out of NATO. Or that the Americans should go home. We have compulsory military service, and there is no stop-the- draft movement as you have sometimes in America. Most of us are not against weapons per se. We are against the stationing of these particular nuclear missiles on German soil because it is not in Germany's best interest.

"We will stand up to the Soviets. We believe in a realistic war-fighting capability. These missiles are not weapons with which you win a war. They are political symbols."

In response to criticism from within Germany itself that the peace movement is only concerned with restraining American missiles and not Soviet ones, leaders of the Green Party crossed over from West to East Berlin. Emerging from the train station at Alexanderplatz, they set up a soap box and drew a crowd. Fifteen minutes passed before they were arrested by the East German police, detained and, a few hours later, released.

Among those leaders was Lukas Beckmann, who is generally found at the Bonn national headquarters of the Greens, a white house with a dark green door on Beethovenstrasse. "There were some objections to our crossing over, by the militants in the peace movement, the Alternatives. But we got hundreds of letters in favor. It was our first trip into the East, but not the last."

Beckmann had been a church activist in his village of 500 inhabitants, mostly farmers. "It was the only political place for miles around. I'm still a religious man but no longer in the church. God is no longer in the church. He lives in men like Martin Luther King and (Nobel-Prize-winning poet) Pablo Neruda.

"We Greens are the voice of the peace movement, but what we represent is more important than our organization. It's an attitude toward freedom and equality. Toward human rights. We are a certain kind of people."

In Berlin, the younger son of former chancellor Willy Brandt sits in his cool basement study surrounded by half-filled bookshelves and some unopened book cartons. Peter is barely past 30. He is a member of the Alternatives Party of youngish militant radicals who seem to dominate the Greens of Berlin and Hamburg. Half a lifetime ago he embarrassed his father -- then the foreign minister -- by demonstrating in the streets for peace. ("There are worse things Germans have demonstrated for," his father later said.) Less demonstrative now, Peter sits and writes tracts of political philosophy.

"East Germany is irrelevant for most of the peace movement. But not for me. Most Germans don't believe that reunification is possible. Hardly anyone in the peace movement even thinks about East Germany. I find it intolerable that our nation is divided, and I feel closer to people in the other half of my city than to the peace movement in Stuttgart!

"What disturbs me most is that both the American and Soviet armies occupy both Germanys for their own interests, not for ours. That is what ties me to the East German peace movement, as small as it is. If war between the superpowers takes place, it will destroy both halves of our nation."

I found no official in Bonn who doubts that the American missiles will be installed as scheduled. They feel reassured that the peace groups, although visible and voluble, do not constitute an active majority of the German people. Many are troubled over the role of the militant far left, which has not eschewed violence and which recently attacked Vice President Bush's car in Krefeld.

Recent public opinion surveys indicate that "most Germans" are against the deployment of the missiles -- but also that most Germans are against neutralism in East-West relations. Most young people are "very much concerned," while many elderly "don't care at all." The surveys do not measure the intensity of public sentiments.

Nor can the "loss" to the peace movement be measured if the missiles are deployed. Whether this mass movement reemerges as a more tightly knit organization or sinks into the German social landscape as a frame of mind depends on how people and political parties confront each other in the next months.

"You must feel compassion for our people," a Hamburg television commentator advised me. "If we Germans organize -- for peace or anything -- every European fears that 'German nationalism' is reawakened. If Germans are indifferent, we are accused of being 'materialistic.' If we favor deployment of weapons against the Soviet Union, we get tainted with 'militarism.' And we Germans care very much what others think of us. . . .

"Just look at the case of my old mother. She was brought up in a Nazi household. Then she was reeducated by the Americans to be pro-NATO. Now when her grandchildren speak in her presence of fighting against American weapons, she keeps silent. . . .

"We have a hard time coming to terms with out history," he continued, "and with our geography, too. Germans don't like the fact that they are on the front line between East and West. If we could," he concluded, "we would move our country out of Central Europe."