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'Michel' rides again as W. German spirits brighten

A bemused fellow in a sleeping cap is once again the symbol of Germany. And this says a lot about the mood here today. The chap in the floppy bedcap is Michel, and he is appearing every Monday night, April 11 through June 13, in a serious TV romp through West Germany's history. It is called ''Adventure Federal Republic (of Germany).''

He and his prototypical family (and prototypical, gossipy neighbor) have managed in the first episodes to reunite after the war, scrounge black-market sausage, and rebuild.

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Their coping is interspersed with contemporary cabaret satire of such targets as de-Nazification and the economic miracle; documentary excerpts from the Nuremburg war-crimes trial, the stream of refugees from the east, the corpses of concentration-camp victims, the Berlin blockade, the division of Germany.

But the centerpiece of the exercise is Michel, an inoffensive, not-too-bright Everyman who harks back to early 19th-century political cartoons - and has had the honor of being banned as too passive and unheroic both in Nazi Germany and in present-day East Germany.

Recent years have also seen little of Michel in West Germany - not because he has been censored, but because West Germans have been taking themselves and their problems too seriously for the inconsequential Michel.

The last half decade of terrorist attacks, nuclear-war dangers, environmental pollution, and economic recession did not seem a time when people wanted to identify with the hapless Michel. Angst and protest were more popular news media themes, and Michel simply wasn't made to carry banners.

But this spring things have changed. Not only is Michel providing his own TV version of postwar history, but he was featured in Die Zeit magazine in March. Die Zeit traced his family tree back almost a millennium to (possibly) the Archangel Michael, whom the Germans enjoined to help them fight off the Huns. In succeeding centuries Michel became less warlike. By the late 19th century he had been castigated by the poet-journalist Heinrich Heine and others as a sleepy peasant who refused to awake to nationhood.

But the implication of the current TV series is that this everyday nonhero is the real hero of West German history. In introducing its ''adventure'' series the WDR-TV station eschewed the movers and shakers to interview instead a demolition expert who dismantles hundreds of leftover World War II bombs each year, a miner who was rescued from a pit after almost two weeks underground, and a new West German citizen who was ''ransomed'' as Bonn bought free another batch of East German political prisoners. These lives, the show is saying, are West Germany's adventure.

All this is a deliberately nonpolitical view. But in some ways it echoes the vision of Helmut Kohl, the conservative who was just elected chancellor after 13 years of Social Democratic chancellors. In the campaign, Dr. Kohl exhorted voters to put fear behind them. And he has argued that West Germany's much vaunted ''economic miracle'' was no miracle, but the hard work of lots of ordinary people.

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In some ways, Michel corresponds to the public's tentative returning optimism more closely than do ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's somber warnings of potential economic and nuclear disaster.

The most concrete indication of this returning confidence is perhaps the response to the Allensbach Survey Research Institute question: ''Is it with hopes or with fears that you enter the coming year?'' In the past two years, pessimists dominated. At the 1980-81 year's end 34 percent had hopes, 28 percent fears, and 27 percent were skeptical. By December 1982, people were gloomier, with 32 percent fearful.

But mid-January surveys showed an upswing, with 41 percent hopeful, 24 percent fearful, and 26 percent skeptical.

This change of mood seems subjective. The nuclear threat still looms. Reports come in every week of further destruction of forests by acid rain. Unemployment is at a record high. But people seem to be tired of worrying.

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