THE atavistic fascination with Russia that over the centuries has pulled the Germans into so many misadventures in Eastern Europe is tugging hard at the Federal Republic. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's recent state visit to Moscow is only the first in a series of tests in the next months of how far Bonn will go to find a new relationship with the Kremlin. At stake is the delicate balance of the Western alliance, caught in the vise of a growing European hope that a new and permanently peaceful relationship can be built with the East and doubts about the ability of the United States to continue to lead the alliance.
A curious phenomenon exists all over Germany: At the working echelons of both government and the private sector, there is great skepticism of Soviet Communist Party boss Mikhail Gorbachev's motivations, pessimism about his chances to succeed, and great caution about any initiatives toward the Soviet Union. But as one mounts in the bureaucracy or toward the board rooms of the corporations, optimism grows, flowering into euphoria.
From F. Wilhelm Christians, former co-chairman of the powerful Deutschebank, which led the push for $1.6 billion in new credits for the Soviets: ``We have lost our markets in Latin America. We must and can develop new markets in the Soviet Union.''
From a prominent Swiss bank economist: ``I do not believe my bank should lend to the Soviets for tactical and strategic reasons. But we will. We are a small country, and when the German banks begin to twist our arm, what can we do?''
From a sitting member of the Bundestag for West Berlin: ``Maybe there is something that Moscow can do for us on Berlin, if we meet them halfway.''
From a working-level employee of one of the largest German companies facing bankruptcy in the Ruhr, ``The Soviets cannot pay, and I do not see the possibility of government credits.''
In a think tank in Munich, an analyst who has worked on the USSR for most of his career paints a grim picture of the Soviet political economy but sounds optimistic about possible German-Soviet collaboration.
In the Ministry of Defense, a longtime observer acknowledges that despite no evidence that the Soviets have made major cutbacks or changes in military strategy, his new minister went to Moscow with Dr. Kohl ready to make unilateral concessions in disarmament negotiations.
Perhaps it is the little social and grace notes in conversations that are the most disturbing for a visiting American: At a very fashionable cocktail party in Frankfurt, the just retired head of the local branch of one of Germany's largest banks announces he is off to Leningrad for three months. ``I want to brush up on my Russian. I was a prisoner of war there during World War II.'' Then, with unconcealed glee, ``When the Russians asked me what I did as a U-boat captain, I told them I sank British and American ships. And they said: `Good!' And that was when they were supposed to have been your allies!''
One tires of hearing German after German describe how well the two countries know and admire each other, how Lenin said (a retired general tells you) socialism should run like the German railroads, how (from an Austrian businessman) ``you Americans have always overestimated them.'' When this American, following one of these conversations, pointed out that the two peoples had almost destroyed each other in the last two generations, a friend replies, ``Ah! but you Americans don't understand that there would not have been a modern German state if the czar hadn't protected Prussia from Napoleon.''
The inevitable conclusion is that - contrary to the logic of the horrendous Soviet economic problems, which make any expansion of normal trade with the West impossible, and the intensely enigmatic politics of the communist state, which defy any attempt ``to help Gorbachev'' - Bonn is moving toward a massive new aid program to Moscow.
Even more distressing is the lack of a strategy or even a set of tactics in Western Europe for dealing with the Soviets in this new era of perestroika and glasnost. As the Germans quietly worry about a Soviet-American negotiation over their heads, there is little to reassure them.
The NATO headquarters in Brussels, led by its first German secrtary-general, has become a citadel of golf and bureaucratic retreat from reality. Washington is paralyzed in the rosy haze of the Reagan sunset. Neither of the US presidential candidates responded in more than clich'es to the conundrum of maintaining the sword of deterrence in a Western Europe moving rapidly toward nuclear disarmament yet faced with the Soviets' continuing massive conventional threat. Most believe that the 1992 goal of economic integration of the European Common Market is unrealistic. And it is not only Margaret Thatcher who, while opposing supranationality for the European Community, has no alternative rallying cry for the West Europeans.