Germans and Germany: words that stir emotions and images; words that mean different things to different people. Forty years after the start of World War II, millions of people around the world ride in Volkswagens while others still will not set foot in this country.

What kind of place is Germany today? How much has it changed? Could it change again?

With two world wars in half a century under the German belt, one has to be careful answering the biggest question: Could it happen again? Yet the answer of most fair-minded persons today would be no.

Aside from prosperity, the postwar era has brought more than 30 years of experience in democracy to the western two-thirds of the divided German nation.In this relatively short span of history, much has taken root here.

The German parliamentary democracy seems strong, as does the Federal Constitutional Court. The country has been blessed with perhaps the most consistently skillful political leadership of any Western nation in the postwar era: Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard, Willy Brandt and now Helmut Schmidt, perhaps the most talented of all.

Some two-thirds of this country's 60 million people were born either during or after World War II. They have grown up in a democratic environment unknown to their parents and grandparents that has lasted almost three times as long as the experimental democracy of the 1920s Weimar Republic, which crumbled and gave rise to Hitler.

In recent years, citizens' action groups have begun to form to protest a variety of things, a sign that belies, at least to some extent, the legendary image of the always obedient German.

Though West German schools still skirt the Nazi era in their history classes and textbooks, a rash of new films, books and the showing of the U.S. television series "Holocaust" have outflanked conservative school-masters and local bureaucrats to provide a healthy eye-opener.

The strong German currency has also meant millions of people vacationing in America, and thousands more over the past three decades getting part of their education in the United States, England or France, thus increasing the influence of the liberalism of more experienced democracises.

West Germany has proved to be a loyal and dedicated ally in the postwar Western alliance while avoiding any display of German militancy. The West German armed force, the largest in Western Europe, is very much out of public view, and military service is not very popular.

It is in East Germany -- whose leaders claim their third of prewar Germany has been cleansed of the Nazi taint while the West has not -- where one finds the survival of Hitler-era form in the official group-think, the ever-present sloganeering and the retention of Prussian-style militarism.

"I think the [West] Germans of today are rather good democrats and in general rather faithful to their allies. They are much less nationalistic than any other nation in Europe and maybe even than the United States. The Germans are more open to a unified Europe than anyone else," says Manfred Rommel, the mayor of Stuttgart and a leading Christian Democrat politician, who is the son of Erwin Rommel, a leading Nazi-era general.

"There is no more nationalism in Germany and the danger of war, due to that, is no longer possible. That is the biggest change," adds Egon Bahr, general manager of the ruling Social Democratic Party and a leading political strategist in Bonn for the past decade.

"It has reached the stage where Europe is the real zone of peace, the only one in the world. That is the second major change," he says.

Indeed, Germany has changed in big, important and positive ways. Yet the other equally obvious fact is that many of the old cliches about Germans remain true. This is still a country with a complex and often contradictory mixture of emotions and personality traits, often of a brooding character.

A reading of German history and the works of its great writers and thinkers produces a list of the same conflicting national traits still present today.

"Two souls, alas, reside within my breast," wrote the famed German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in describing his character's German-ness nearly 200 years ago.Later, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that there were far more than just two souls.

So the cliches are important because they still must be searched for clues about where this again powerful country is going.

Today, as in the past, the best and the worst things about Germans and Germany are one and the same -- orderliness.

This is still a country where the penchant for rules and regulations can drive an outsider to distraction. It is a land where too many people consider themselves policemen; a country, it seems, of too little humor, of too few outlets aside from soccer stadiums for letting off steam, of far too serious an approach to everything.

Authoritarianism in the schools, the lack of a continuous history of which to be proud, the inability thus far to find new goals other than materialism and consumerism, have also taken a toll on the new generation.

Peter Glotz, a senator from West Berlin and an education specialist, estimates that 10 to 20 percent of Germany's student population may be mental dropouts, isolated from society. Many of the rest, according to interviews with teachers, show a depressing lack of initiative, taking a no-risk, security-first course.

Although West German films are winning awards again outside the country, teachers report few young people entering the arts.

Along some West German businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians one also finds occasionally a sense of frustration mixed with a touch of arrogance. It is a frustration that seems to say privately: "We know better than you, but can't say it publicly because of our past."

To the extent that one encounters this, it is frequently associated with the contrasting fortunes of the United States and West Germany over the past several years. Germans regard the national currency as a symbol of national pride. The drop in value of the dollar and the perceived decline of U.S. leadership, combined with the consistently good West German performance in both fields, produces this emotion.

It is not so much anti-Americanism, since this country remains overwhelmingly pro-American. Rather, it is one of the old German traits that Goethe and Nietzsche understood.

German orderliness and efficiency, however, have also produced a country that works.

It is not just that the trains run on time.The whole system of mass transit provides an enviable model for any country. The social welfare and pension system, the cities and public services all work, and work rather well.

Though drug use among young people is up sharply, there is, by American standards, very little violent crime or feeling of personal danger on German streets.

The work ethic, though slipping a bit, probably is still more alive here than most other countries.

Despite a steadily rising currency adding to the cost of exported goods, West Germany's export-oriented industry keeps selling its products abroad. German industry, with considerable government help, is spending large sums on research and development.

This clearly is a prosperous country, with wealth reasonably well distributed. Its middle class probably has a level of financial security greater than its American counterpart, though without the freedom of choice that the more anything-goes U.S. economy allows.

For the tens of thousands of American civilians living and working in Germany, it is a comfortable country in a physical sense, not unlike the United States in its Western, industrialized consumer society.

Given the inbred and traditional German devotion to personal privacy, it also is not an unfriendly place.

Looking eastward, where East Germany also outperforms its neighbors within the Soviet bloc, one also senses here in the West a suppressed pride, a feeling that there will be an irresistible tug ultimately leading to reunification of 80 million Germans under a world political alignment different -- admittedly very different -- from what we now have.

Economic chaos has been at the root of German militancy in the past, and it is the memory of the chaos of the 1930s in particular that keeps Bonn on its ultracautious economic course today.

Actually the West German scene and economy seem far more stable and able to withstand temporary setbacks than the country's leaders sometimes suggest. The fear of the past seems to be used here on occasion to defend conservative policies to other Western allies.

It is an economic crisis, however, that is likely to provide the real test of how this country with a split personality will react.

Would German democracy survive a severe economic crisis? "I hope so," says Rommel, "but it would be a tremendous problem. Due to the steady growth of the postwar economy, people are not accustomed to things going backward.

"I think we could succeed in such a crisis, but we must do more. We must have a society more open to new ideas, more willing to listen, to think, to be fair. We must try to create a political culture something like the U.S. or Britain. The English," says the burgomaster, "they are the world champions of tolerance."