Protestant churches in East and West Germany recently joined in a pastoral statement -- their first common action in a decade -- confessing to a common German guilt for the start of World War II 40 years ago.

The statement, entitled, "A Word About Peace," caused much comment in the German press. It was read in many Protestant churches on Sunday. The war broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, when German armies invaded Poland.

The joint statement reminded Germans of their responsibility for the outbreak of the war, saying that "the question of guilt forces us to ask questions about our own personal part, about our entanglement in that guilt.

Another part of the statement said:

"Unnumbered people continue to bear the suffering of this war. The wounds still hurt today. The war left behind it deep-seated antagonisms between peoples, political tensions and lack of trust."

The 40th anniversary statement also mentioned an earlier church confession of war guilt, issued in Stuttgart a few years after hostilities concluded. Before that earlier statement, few Christians outside Germany were prepared to welcome German participation in the ecumenical movement, which came into existence largely as a force for peace.

The statement also called for a systematic educational program for peace, saying, "We know long before a war breaks out, it has already begun in the thinking and the hearts of people. Mistrust and fear and the falling of threat extinguish all hopes."

The joint statement praised the Helsinki agreement as a sign of hope for the lessening of tensions between nations, adding: "The present arms race consumes immeasurable energy and resources. The political leaders who are involved in difficult negotiations to stop this development need constant encouragement."

The statement added that all Christians must be ready to place the cause of peace for all peoples before their own interests and to use their wealth more and more to achieve a just distribution of resources among various peoples.

Immediately after World War II, the 23 regional Protestant churches in Germany formed an umbrella group. The seven regional churches located in whole or in part in East Germany steadfastly resisted their government's opposition to the movement.

Their resistance collapsed in 1968 when a new East German constitution made the participation of the East German Protestants in the Evangelical Church in Germany unconstitutional.

The Federation of Protestant Churches in East Germany was organized a year later to thwart what the church believed was the government's to divide Protestantism by dealing separately with each regional church.

It is generally recognized that the church federation has greatly strengthened Protestantism in East Germany even though it divided Protestantism in Germany as a whole.

The significance of the joint statement was that it represented the first common declaration to all German Protestants since this division. It was drafted by joint commission of the two umbrella groups in a series of meetings.