The crowds shuffle quietly into the tiny exhibition hall, not far from the sparkling opulence of shops along Kurfurstendamm. They file past an array of brown uniforms and red banners emblazoned with swastikas, past huge photographs of open graves stuffed with emaciated corpses and torture victims dangling from hooks, to stop before a mesmerizing montage of the man whose twisted obsessions led to a war that consumed 50 million lives.

The anguished shouts, the thrusting arms, the hypnotic eyes seem to leap out of the frames. The spectators absorb the scenes with a mixture of awe and disgust, until they turn to leave and find themselves momentarily jarred by their own image reflected in a 12-foot gilt-edged mirror.

Fifty years ago today, Adolf Hitler took the oath of office as chancellor of the Third Reich, culminating his long and treacherous quest for power. That night, thousands of chanting Nazi storm troopers marched through the streets of Berlin in a triumphant torchlight parade that ignited a cataclysmic chain of events leading to the devastation of an entire continent 12 years later.

As West Germany faces a year fraught with apprehension over critical elections, economic troubles and fears of nuclear conflict, its citizens have invariably sought to draw comparisons with the political instability, the high unemployment and distrust of neighboring powers so prevalent in the Weimar era that preceded the Nazi takeover.

The anniversary of Hitler's rise to power has spawned a profusion of exhibits, such as the one entitled "1933--The Way to Dictatorship" at West Berlin's Staatliche Kunsthalle, along with television programs, documentaries, books, symposiums and plays examining how a highly cultured, democratic state like Germany in the 1920s could succumb so swiftly to a reign of totalitarian terror.

"How could it have happened?" many Germans have been asking themselves and others. "And could it happen again?"

The flood of material about the Hitler period in itself underscores a remarkable transformation in German attitudes. For many years after the war, discussion of Hitler was avoided, in the words of the historian Golo Mann, as "the unpleasant subject."

For many Germans, who were either former Nazi members or soldiers during the war, the memories were too painful to remember. Teachers shared parents' guilt about the Hitler era so most education programs simply glossed over the subject or taught modern history from 1945.

"You just did not mention it," says Prof. Hermann Lubbe, a leading German historian who has compared trends in modern West Germany with the Hitler period. "To make ex-Nazis into normal civilians in a new republic you could not keep an entire nation on trial. There was little or no public discussion, not even official mourning days."

The taboos began to crumble in the 1960s when a resurgence of vandalism of synagogues foreshadowed a rise in neo-Nazi activity. The National Democratic Party, an avowed neo-Nazi group, won seats in several state parliaments and began to acquire a small national following.

Politicians, scholars and commentators, fearing an erosion in democratic convictions, spoke up loudly against the movement and schools were instructed to break the tacit restrictions on the history of the Third Reich. Within a few years, the neo-Nazi party virtually disappeared as the country became more sensitized to the subject.

By the mid-1970s, as the majority of Germany's population shifted to a postwar generation, some historians were beginning to warn that catharsis over the Hitler years was so complete that a time of rehabilitation might be drawing near.

Films about Hitler became highly popular, magazines were filled with pictures and articles about Hitler's propaganda, even a rock opera called "Hitler Superstar" came into vogue.

In 1976, an educator in Kiel, Dieter Bossman, conducted a poll of students in 121 classes in different schools around the country to find out what children in modern Germany were learning about Hitler.

The results, as Bossman described them, amounted to "sheer catastrophe." In reading more than 3,000 essays culled from the young pupils, Bossman found that some admitted knowing nothing about the subject, others who thought Hitler was an Italian or had made the first moon landing, still more who felt that he was a communist or lived in the 19th century. Among these students who knew about Hitler's genocidal actions, some felt these hostilities were offset by his success in curbing unemployment.

Bossman's revelations caused a nationwide stir. Further studies, however, found less troubling results, showing that older teen-age students held a much more mature understanding of the Nazi period and that the ignorance of younger pupils derived more from a disinclination to learn history at that age than from distorted teaching programs.

A more reassuring reaction occurred when the U.S.-produced television series "Holocaust" was shown in West Germany in January 1979. About 20 million people, half of the country's adult population, watched at least some of the installments. West German radio was swamped with an estimated 25,000 phone calls and 560,000 people wrote the government's center for political education seeking more information about the Nazi era.

The showing of "Holocaust" was clearly a milestone in West Germany's efforts to cope with the legacy of the Nazi era. Even though audience reaction tapered off when the series ran a second time, the powerful sentiments it unleashed, ranging from grief to vows that such abominations must not happen again, did not dissipate for some time.

The spate of Hitler memorabilia now inundating the country because of today's anniversary has again stirred controversy that West Germany, with a majority of the population now born after the war, is developing a morbid fascination with the Nazi past that could engender adulation in the minds of impressionable youngsters with no grasp of the Nazi era's dreadful consequences.

Since October, 81 television programs, including a 13-part series called "Europe Under the Swastika" whose final episode will run tonight, have been or will be shown on German television through March.

The West Berlin Senate appropriated $1 million for exhibits that would demonstrate how much of the blame for Hitler's rise to power lay with middle-class apathy and capitalist greed for profits. Some of these shows provoked anger because they demonstrate how the city's two biggest employers, the appliance and electrical firms of AEG-Telefunken and Siemens, exploited wartime slave labor.

Politicians have seized the occasion to warn that West Germany's commitment to democracy is inextricably interwoven with its role in the Atlantic Alliance. Today, as the entire country becomes transfixed by the fateful inauguration 50 years ago, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Social Democratic predecessors, Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt, will speak at ceremonies in the Reichstag, the former national parliament building whose burning a month after Hitler's inauguration enabled him to declare a state of emergency and thus assume absolute powers to govern. The building now is an exhibition hall abutting the Berlin Wall.

The politicians' remarks there today undoubtedly will point up the contrasts on the other side of the graffiti-smeared concrete barrier. In East Germany, the Hitler anniversary has been marked by the absence of official remembrances.

East Berlin insists that there is no reason to recall such occasions, because the Communist government that came to power in the eastern half of the German nation claims to have "eradicated the roots of fascism." Head of state Erich Honecker and other East German leaders plan to acknowledge the event only by laying a wreath at a memorial to the victims of fascism.

The polarized approach to coping with the Hitler past, saturation in one half of Germany and near-total blackout in the other, reflects not only the dichotomy of governments but the enormous difficulty in finding the proper historical context for the horrible consequences of Hitler's apotheosis.

Some West Germans are alarmed by the trend. "It's just too much," says Heiner Lichtenstein, senior editor of the West Deutsche Rundfunk television channel and author of a study analyzing reactions to "Holocaust." "So many shows, so much obsession with the Hitler years could soon create a backlash that, in the least, would start to trivialize the experience, especially for young people who have no direct knowledge of that period."

"We are once again opening up the poisoned picture box of the past," said the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine in a recent editorial. "Everyone has the best intentions, to look history in the eye. What is to be feared is that the 'Hitler myth' as a political temptation grows even with those events aimed at refuting it because, as we know from primitive cultures, rituals to ward off evil spirits result in manifestation of these spirits."

Other voices, however, defend the incessant flow of information about the Hitler years as a means of fortifying West German democratic institutions as well as fulfilling German obligations to remember the past and live up to historical responsibilities.

"To preserve stability in Bonn, we need the reminder of Weimar," says Prof. Karl Dietrich Bracher, a Berlin historian and author of "The Destruction of the Weimar Democracy." "Our political culture today is very much connected with our interpretation of Hitler and Weimar."

Bracher believes that the Hitler anniversary has served an extremely useful purpose by its leitmotif that political instability and economic problems create a volatile mix that can endanger democracies.

While stressing the remembrance of the Hitler years as an important tonic for today's Germany, Bracher and other historians, such as Sebastian Haffner, reject the notion that current problems could lead toward a demise similar to Weimar's despite the eerie similarity of some elements in the Germanys of 1933 and 1983.

Then as now, Germany was enduring a protracted period of economic difficulties, marked by a rising number of bankruptcies and rapidly escalating unemployment.

In 1930, as in 1982, Germany was ruled by a Social Democratic chancellor in coalition with the center. And in 1930, as happened last year, this political alliance collapsed because the governing parties could not agree about economic and social policies. In both instances, the successor was a conservative government that soon called premature elections.

The new elections produced a breakthrough for Hitler. From an insignificant 2.5 percent, the Nazi Party captured 18.3 percent of the votes and emerged as the second strongest faction in the Reichstag. In 1932 elections, the Nazis scored 37.3 percent to become the biggest party in parliamemt, enabling Hitler to cut a back-room deal with other right-wing parties and become chancellor.

There are no parties today that remotely resemble the antidemocratic forces of Nazi and Communist groups that eventually destroyed the Weimar Republic. Moreover, the West German constitution was carefully drafted to prevent the proliferation of parties (there were 32 when Hitler came to power) that ultimately paralyzed government.

West German parties must win at least 5 percent of the votes to hold seats in the Bundestag. This requirement has thwarted the risk that radical parties of the right or left could get into parliament and disrupt government for their own designs.

In addition, West Germany benefits from a strong free press and court system to check abuses of power. The final collapse of the Weimar Republic was sealed when Hitler took advantage of the right to declare a state emergency, unchallenged by any court, that enabled him to establish a legal dictatorship.

Yet in spite of its solid commitment to democracy, buttressed by a robust constitution and the two-party dominance of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats loyal to the principle of fair transfer of power, and an enviable social welfare network buoyed by years of prosperity, West Germany in 1983 betrays a palpable sense of uncertainty rather than confidence about its future.

More than ever before, there is a feeling of vulnerability among the young and old, a concern that their society remains fragile and too susceptible to manipulative forces in the outside world. Sociologists might use the term "anomie" to describe this malaise akin to alienation, but whatever it is called, West Germans are troubled by too many signs that their economy and their security are so profoundly affected by others that they have lost fundamental control of the destiny of their state.

West Germany's export-led economy has been badly hurt by a recession that has contracted world trade and aggravated further protectionism, and there are few signs that the country can hope to recover its economic preeminence soon.

Unemployment is expected to climb to 2.5 million by the March 6 national election date--a figure not far removed in proportional terms of population from the Weimar peak--and among those with jobs the vaunted Teutonic work ethic has deteriorated as greater social emphasis is placed on leisure time.

Moreover, the prospective deployment of Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles later this year, if arms control talks fail between the Soviet Union and the United States, has reinforced the view that West Germany's fate is held hostage to the predilections of the superpowers.

While anchored in the Atlantic Alliance, the country cannot lose sight of 17 million relatives and fellow Germans on the other side of the iron curtain, where contact with the West fluctuates with the climate of relations between Moscow and Washington.

More than any other country in the western alliance, West Germany also has close trade and cultural ties with the East, reflecting to a great extent Germany's tradition as a central European nation that historically served as a bridgehead between East and West.

The scars of war still affect German ties with the Soviet Union and largely account for growing anxieties about stationing missiles like the Pershing II that can reach Soviet territory from West Germany in 14 minutes.

An acute awareness of Soviet paranoia toward German instincts only heightens the fear that the new missiles could take West Germany closer to the brink of nuclear confrontation.

"Molotov once told me, 'After having Germans invade our land twice in the last two wars, do you think we can allow them to possess powerful nuclear missiles?' " Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky said in a recent interview. "The Germans know how the Soviets feel about this, and that's why they are so afraid of taking the missiles."

As the twin crises have deepened, West Germans appear somehow resigned to the view that none of the political parties can offer realistic solution to the festering economic problems and the dilemma of maintaining security but keeping out new missiles.

More important, cynicism about political life has grown more pervasive, especially after last autumn's controversial switch in coalitions when the Free Democrats jilted their 13-year ruling partnership with the Social Democrats to link up with the Christian Democrats. The new center-right alliance then deliberately lost a confidence vote in parliament to bring about premature elections, a maneuver that was roundly condemned as a dubious ploy to circumvent constitutional law.

Many analysts predict that the Free Democrats could fail to win enough votes to meet the 5 percent requirement to stay in parliament. The Christian Democrats, meanwhile, hold a 48 percent edge in the polls compared to 42 percent for the Social Democrats.

But the most critical dimension of the forthcoming election could prove to be whether the Greens, a diverse movement espousing the abolition of military pacts as well as antinuclear and ecological issues, can maintain its current 6 percent standing in the polls and win enough seats in the Bundestag to hold the balance of power.

The rise of the Greens movement, more than any other political manifestation, has revived fears among some West Germans that its blend of romantic ideals and disdain for parliamentary tradition could foment instability in a future government.

While admitting that "there is no Hitler today and none of the nationalistic emotions he could build upon," the historian Sebastian Haffner perceives some cause for concern in the apathy or outright disdain shown toward the major parties that bears an unsettling parallel to the 1930s.

"Not all those who followed Hitler recognized and approved his aims," Haffner wrote in Stern magazine. "They were mostly people badly affected by the economic crisis, tired of party quarrels, who felt things cannot go on like this or that everything must change. These are the same emotions observed today that have provided the Greens with more than a million voters."

Haffner and other pundits, as well as conservative politicians, believe that the Greens, while obviously not like the Nazis, share a common theme in their rejection of the state, or at least its political system. Even though the Greens do not come close to threatening the established parties in terms of total votes, they could exercise an important role in shaping the policies of the next government.

The historical analogies are decidedly tenuous, but what is important is that they are being drawn so frequently here. Indeed, the most striking parallel is that the rising popularity of the Greens, with faintly nationalistic appeals to rid the land of modern weapons, smoky factories and foreign armies while going back to nature, coincides with the surge of interest in the view that Hitler, for better or worse, was a uniquely German phenomenon that also grew out of distorted romantic ideas.

Many studies of Hitler have sought to depict him as a product of his times. Between the two world wars, totalitarianism flourished not only in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union but all over Europe. By Bracher's estimate, 15 dictators ruled in Europe by the time war broke out in 1939.

While previous studies laid emphasis on the view that Hitler came to power through some devious coup or plot, the current thesis surrounding the anniversary has stressed how Hitler attained power legally through the system and in so doing had to be interpreted through the traditions of German history.

In his seven-hour film "Hitler," Hans Jurgen Syberberg casts the dictator as a marionette, to whom the narrator says: "You believed you were the motor, but it was you yourself who was moved, mirror of our desire and of our dreams of the power of the community. There was no other choice. The course of history and the multiple experiments of German democracy proved it."

The narrator turns toward the audience and utters the inescapable conclusion: "Everything led to him. He was the only solution, it was no accident, no error, no violation. He was Germany and Germany was he in the 20th century."

The notion that Hitler can be perceived as a projection of romantic forces bound up in the German soul does not dismiss the fact that, at the very least, he was a monstrous aberration. Nonetheless, he parlayed his oratorical abilities into absolute power primarily because he was able to play upon the fears of the time.

Joachim Fest, in his biography of Hitler that became the seminal work of the 1970s on the subject, argues that a major factor in Hitler's ascent to power was his skillful exploitation of "die grosse Angst" ("the great fear") of the German bourgeoisie after World War I.

That great fear was focused against communism, which had just emerged in triumph in the Soviet Union. But a deeper source of anxiety, claimed Fest, was a persistent German fear of modernity. Rapid industrialization and the exploding cities nurtured grave concern that assembly lines and squalid urban living represented the disturbing wave of the future, one that would eradicate the serene pastoral pleasures so exalted in German romanticism.

Hitler provided a powerful voice to express yearnings for "the backward-looking utopianism" cherished by millions of Germans. He aroused further passions by playing on social and racial resentment that would cry out for vengeance against those supposedly responsible for Germany's plight.

Today, as Germans look back on the years that led to Nazi domination and its terrible repercussions, many find some comfort in the fact that, whatever the current economic troubles or worries about nuclear missiles, fascism as a political force on the national scene appears dead.

No fanatic with a trim mustache stalks the floor of parliament, and the vision of brown-shirted storm troopers patrolling the streets seems preposterous in a bustling, open society where freedom of thought flourishes.

But if Hitler and any would-be surrogates have disappeared from the national scene, the peculiar forces in the German soul that he successfully manipulated into active or passive support for his totalitarian state still can be glimpsed, at times with frightening impact.

The xenophobic instinct, so implausible in the modern West German who loves vacations abroad and speaks foreign languages fluently, still arises in vehement cries such as "Turken raus" ("Turks get out"), a demand that Turkish migrant laborers go home, even though they have borne the brunt of jobs like coal mining and street sweeping that most Germans refuse to perform.

A growing sense of unease about both superpowers has revived calls for a neutral zone in Central Europe, one that might also hold out the flickering hope of some kind of reunification with East Germany, a goal once so strongly affirmed that it was written into the preamble of West Germany's constitution.

Besides that utopian notion, the Greens' efforts to transform the nature of West German society can be attributed as much to modern discontent with high arms budgets, rampant materialism, and toxic pollution as to any new stirrings of romanticism.

The real danger may lie in an overreaction to the Greens' manifesto if they should get into parliament. Alternatively, a sense of tolerance could ultimately result in a drastic tapering of the Greens' demands.

Yet the political twists of the forthcoming election may pose only minor difficulties compared with economic and security challenges ahead. The looming increase in unemployment and the ugly prospect of violent demonstrations if new nuclear missiles are deployed later this year could raise the greatest test yet for West German institutions.

In that sense, the experience of Weimar may have supplied, albeit at incalculable costs, lessons that no other country has learned. As Karl Bracher points out, "Bonn is not Weimar, but only because Bonn would not be Bonn without Weimar."