West Berlin — I HAVE visited West Berlin three times in the last five years - twice to participate in meetings at the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute, and just now as a tourist. Each visit has been an unsettling experience - unsettling in the sense that it has evoked a strong feeling regarding 1945, the postwar German settlement, and the standoff that this gracious city continues to represent between East and West.
Most Germans do not empathize with these feelings. They matter-of-factly accept a status quo about which they can do little. Visits with Germans in the German Democratic Republic have become easier to arrange, and for West Germans traveling frequently to Berlin by air, West Berlin's Tegel Airport is just one more spot to let down in the grid of West German cities. Soviet aircraft flying near the three Allied air corridors into and out of West Berlin during the past two weeks - close enough in some cases to cause Pan American flights to take corrective action - should recall to everyone West Berlin's special status.
Berliners have always enjoyed their own version of ''special status.'' Created on the plains of northern Germany in relatively modern times, Berlin lacks the layers of history - and architecture - of London or Paris or even of many smaller German cities. Even so, many Germans feel it is their only city that does not retain some provincial air about it.
Yet the former capital remains an island behind the Iron Curtain. It's a city of youth and of aging persons. At an excellent exhibition of new painters at the Schloss Charlottenburg, called ''Deutsche Landschaft Heute'' (''German Landscape Today''), there were few persons over 30 years of age. Students and elderly companioned on an early evening bus ride on one of Berlin's quiet, creamy-colored double-deck buses. Obviously there are those in between of working age. But the city is uncomfortably skewed between old and young.
While West Berlin may have a demographic problem, its individual residents go about their affairs as normally as they would in Frankfurt or Munich. What gives the occasional visitor pause and even heartache is the reminder in Berlin that here, in a bunker in the center of the city (now East Berlin) ended the second war fought on European soil in 30 years. The moral repugnance of Hitler's regime was ended. Yet out of the millions of European lives lost in that war grew up not a devotion to human brotherhood transcending all political ideologies but a ''new order'' of West vs. East, which remains the starting point of international diplomatic policies.
One wonders whether Berlin will again become that central European crossroads it was for a while in the l9th century. French surnames recall the welcome given French Protestants by earlier Prussian rulers. And eastern European names remind one that for generations Germans thought of themselves as middle Europe, something separate from East or West.
Meanwhile, the bittersweet quality of this season, common to other cities of the north, when winter is over and spring still a timid courter, seems to echo the mood of this visit. The magnificent suburbanlike boulevards, their median strips studded with pine trees reaching to the sky, suggest the nearness of a great city. The forests of Dahlem and Zehlendorf alongside the Wannsee provide recreational areas needed by a population numbering in the millions. Yet, if cities have such a thing as a destiny, one wonders whether Berlin's destiny is still to unfold, or perhaps is entirely in the past. For the structure of this divided city necessarily lacks the focus it had when it was a major world capital. One feels as if he is seeing a social organism whose normal development was long ago interrupted.
For many Germans, West Berlin remains a leader in art, theater, and music. Berliners have a pride in living here that would match any native New Yorker. But whether this city will again move beyond the fragile promise of spring suggested by the pansies and hyacinths blooming along the Kudamm this week - that is a question to be answered, not here, but in Moscow and Washington.