BONN, SEPT. 5 -- When the top political leaders of the two Germanys shake hands on West German soil Monday for the first time since the nation formally was divided 38 years ago, people in the rest of Europe and in America may be forgiven if they feel a shiver of discomfort.

During Germany's only period of national unity, from 1871 to 1945, its leaders bore most of the responsibility for starting both world wars.

"I really can understand why the French, the British and the Americans get a little bit nervous when something has to do with the Germans," Guenter Gaus, who was West Germany's first diplomatic envoy to East Berlin, said.

The meeting between West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and East German chief of state and party leader Erich Honecker will signify a rapprochement that is expected to nurture improved relations between the two states at the focal point of the East-West conflict.

But there is widespread agreement that Germany is not headed for reunification, despite deeply felt desires among citizens on both sides of the border for the restoration of a single Vaterland. Instead, Honecker's trip represents the clearest mark of acceptance yet stamped on Germany's partition. It is a dramatic event that illustrates how the gradual normalization of relations between the two Germanys during the past decade and a half has reinforced that acceptance.

The Germanys' senior allies in Washington and Moscow have been willing to go along with the inter-German thaw precisely because they are so confident of the reliability of their allied states on the front line.

"Reunification is completely beyond reality. And here our neighbors and everyone in the whole world can be quite sure: The Germans . . . are realists and know what they can do, and they want to concentrate on things that are possible," senior Kohl aide Wolfgang Schaeuble assured foreign journalists this week.

By rolling out a red carpet for Honecker, Bonn will grant a significant concession that very nearly offers the communist leader the full recognition as a foreign statesman that he deeply desires.

Just 15 years ago, Kohl's Christian Democratic Union fought bitterly against officially recognizing the communist government's authority in the east.

West Germany officially is committed to seeking reunification, as its constitution calls on "the entire German people" to achieve "the unity" of the nation by peaceful means.

Bonn insists on a variety of contorted diplomatic techniques to avoid formally accepting East Germany as a separate nation. As a result, Honecker will come on a "working" rather than a "state" visit.

But a consensus has emerged in West Germany favoring an indefinite postponement of efforts to resolve the emotionally charged "German question."

Between 1978 and 1987, the percentage of West Germans who saw reunification as impossible "in the foreseeable future" rose from 30 percent to 60 percent, according to a survey in May by the Emnid polling institute. The share that saw it as possible "within 10 years" dropped from 30 percent to less than 10 percent.

Some members of the left-of-center Social Democratic Party, that began the opening toward East Germany 17 years ago, have proposed that West Germany formally renounce the goal of reunification. They contend that such a move would dramatically improve relations with East Germany.

Even many conservatives contend privately that the need for reunification would disappear if East Germany would guarantee western-style civil liberties for its citizens.

"During the last 10 years, we have had a tendency to speak less of the problem of reunification, and more of the idea of detente, of neighborly relations between Germans," Detlef Kuehn, president of the government-sponsored All-German Institute, said.

The evolution in West German thinking has had an important impact in East Germany. As the West Germans increasingly have come to recognize East Germany's permanence, so has East Germany's communist leadership grown more confident and therefore more willing to cooperate with the West, according to western specialists.

This growing self-confidence has helped make possible a recent relaxation in East Germany's restrictive human rights policies, according to diplomats and other observers there. It is willing to let more of its citizens visit the West, for instance, because most of them come back.

East Germany cares how the West views it because it has struggled since its birth to overcome diplomatic isolation stemming from its image as a Soviet puppet. West Germany did not open a diplomatic mission in East Berlin until after the 1972 Basic Treaty, which resulted from the Ostpolitik of then-chancellor Willy Brandt.

In his efforts to break the postwar ice, Brandt made a historic trip to East Germany in 1970 to meet premier Willi Stoph and Stoph paid a return visit to the West, but normalization progressed at a glacial pace.

Although the Basic Treaty was signed in 1972 formally recognizing East Germany as a separate state within one German nation, it took more than 11 years for the next top-level German-German encounter. That three-day private meeting was held between chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Honecker in East Germany in 1981. None of the talks were held in a capital.

Honecker's forthcoming visit to Bonn was postponed twice under pressure from the Soviet Union, when East-West relations deteriorated in 1983 and 1984. But the East German leader's new plans have the blessing of Soviet party chief Mikhail Gorbachev, and can be seen in the context of the Kremlin leader's policy of glasnost or openness.

East Berlin, in cooperation with Moscow, also uses the prospect of better inter-German relations as bait to influence West German foreign policy. This strategy has borne fruit within the past two weeks.

Kohl pledged on Aug. 26 to scrap 72 antiquated West German missiles whose presence was obstructing a U.S.-Soviet arms control agreement. Government sources said an important factor in his decision was the desire to remove an irritant before Honecker's visit.

Many West Europeans, particularly in France, and some Americans fear that this Soviet strategy could lead to a realignment in central Europe that would fracture the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Their worry is that Bonn, in order to achieve reunification, would accept a Soviet demand of neutrality. That supposedly would weaken NATO more than the Warsaw Pact, because West Germany's population is nearly four times as large as East Germany's.

"The reality is clear: Germany intends to go its own way in Mitteleuropa -- that is, the way of a reunited German people," former French foreign minister Michel Jobert wrote in July.

Opinion polls in West Germany suggest Jobert has a point. The Emnid survey showed that 80 percent of West Germans would welcome a reunited, neutral Germany.

Government experts express concern about such results, but say that the polls reflect "romantic escapism" and "wishful thinking."

Schaeuble said Germany could be reunited only "with the end of Europe's division, as part of a general European solution. This is the opposite of neutralization."

Moreover, much evidence suggests Moscow would be among the principal opponents of a reunified Germany. A united Germany invaded Russia in both world wars.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during a visit to Moscow in July by West German President Richard von Weizsaecker, said that there would be "very serious consequences" if "anyone" sought to reopen the German question.

"Both {German states} have their roles. Both have learned their lessons from history. Both can make their contributions to Europe," Gorbachev said. "What happens in 100 years, only history can decide." he concluded.

The Eastern Bloc is not alone in using the inter-German relationship as a lever for pressuring the other side. Bonn uses its pocketbook to encourage East Germany to improve its human rights policies -- linking increases in economic aid to East Germany to its demands for lesser travel restrictions, greater freedom of information, and other progress on civil liberties issues. It even pays directly for release of political prisoners.

In a broader sense, West Germany uses the "threat" of reunification as a way to influence the East.

West German policy makers contend privately that they would be foolish to formally give up the aim of reunification, because the goal is appealing to the East German population. The prospect of reunification thus maintains a continual, subtle form of pressure on the East Berlin leadership, the officials say.

This approach appears to be evolving toward a policy that implicitly offers East Germany a permanent division of Germany if it tears down the Berlin Wall and allows greater political pluralism.

"The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed," von Weizsaecker is fond of saying. The Brandenburg gate stands in East Berlin next to the Berlin Wall. The president, who holds a largely ceremonial post but has influence as a kind of national conscience, never refers publicly to reunification.

The catch in such an approach is that it requires essentially that the East German leadership convert to a western-style democracy.

Some Germans argue that Germany's most natural, and happiest, status is one of division. They note that treaties that ended the Thirty Years' War and the Napoleonic conflicts deliberately left Germany in scores of pieces to prevent the emergence of a united state that would upset the balance of power.

"I belong to the school saying that the 75 years of unity from Bismarck to Hitler were the exception rather than the rule," Theo Sommer, editor of the weekly Die Zeit, said. "To me, the goal of bringing about a situation where reunification doesn't matter anymore is more important than reunification itself."