THE GERMANS, in the end, voted for stability and for known quantities. The Social Democrats never quite managed to deal with the suspicions that their talk about mediating between East and West meant a march into the unknown for benefits that were less than clear. There's no electorate anywhere with less of a taste for political adventuring than Germany's. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the personification of steady predictability, has won a victory that approaches a triumph. Earlier, the polls had suggested that a good many Germans disapproved of the slightly too clever parliamentary maneuvering by which he came to office without an election last October. But it appears that all has now been forgiven.

For the rest of the world, this election means that negotiations over nuclear weapons now get serious. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were waiting for the German returns before developing their own positions further. The new Soviet leadership had taken unusual risks with its aggressive and explicit campaign to influence the German vote. That gamble was lost yesterday.

For Americans, and particularly for those Americans who work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the danger is now complacency. But the Germans didn't vote for American policy. They voted for the Atlantic alliance, and that's a crucial distinction. Americans particularly should not miss the importance of France, and the French position on the missile negotiations, in this German election. France's Socialist government has consistently rebuffed the kind of romantic ideas about disarmament that have been drawing applause among the German left. Germany and France have consistently maintained a close partnership on the central questions of defense and the Soviets. Germany has voted to maintain that partnership.

In German politics, this campaign has widened the distance between the major parties. The presence of the Greens in parliament seems likely to increase tensions over points on which, in the past, there had been a broad measure of agreement among the politicians. The absence of any plausible solutions for unemployment--the rate is now 10.4 percent and rising--does nothing to alleviate the growing sense of frustration and failure in managing the country's internal affairs. Germany has decided to stick once again with the familiar, but the whole campaign has conveyed an unusual sense of increasing strain.