THE GERMAN War Art Collection, in bureaucratic and ideological limbo since it was confiscated by the United States shortly after the end of World War II, could be on its way back to West Germany, if this country agrees to a formal request.

Concerned about reaction in the American and in leftwing German press, and haunted by possible association with Nazi culture, the West German government was reluctant to press a claim for the paintings, drawings and sculpture until pressure from some of the German artists and their families had built up and a general interest in World War II history became focused on the art of the period.

Since the U.S. has little need and less use for the art, and since the danger of its being used to glorify the Third Reich is past, there seems little reason that the United States should not return it, particularly in light of the costs to this country in maintaining the collection.

In the 30 years since the works of art were seized by the U.S. Army, on order of the War Department, they have been stored at a munitions depot in Pueblo, Colo., and, until recently, in a ramshackle wooden building in Washington.

War art activities were sponsored by many of the belligerents during World War II, but the program of Hitler's Reich exceeded all others in magnitude. Blessed by the Fuhrer's personal interest, the project was efficiently organized and administered. The results were prodigious: almost 9,000 works were shipped to the United States. An undertermined number of works remained in the Russian zone.

Why was this material shipped to the United States in the first place? There are few original paintings from this period outside of America because Allied Control Council regulations specified that anything which would perpetuate or renew the German military spirit was to be confiscated and destroyed.

Even the Imperial War Museum in London does not have any of the German war art, although much must have been found in the British Zone of Occupation. When I asked Captain Gordon Gilkey, project officer and representative of the historical division of the European Command, U.S. Army, about it, he said only that he had been ordered to ship it back. During the brief period of elation in the United States over our military victories over the Third Reich and Japan, a National War Museum was planned. Perhaps the collection was intended for that.

The museum never materialized, and the art remained in the custody of the Army. Some works were transferred to the Air Force, and some turned over to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. A few dozen are on exhibit in military facilities and on display in Army museums, hospitals, schools and in offices and corridors in the Pentagon not open to the public. The largest number are in storage.

According to recent figures, less than one quarter of the art has ever been used. An undetermined but very large number, lost and unaccounted for, have been written off. In 1973, the army listed the size of the collection at 6,300. Used For Propaganda

ADOLF HITLER, his artistic frustrations sublimated into formulating the official National Socialist esthetics, "purified" German art of all the progressive movements which had burgeoned under the Weimar Republic, all international influences as he understood them, all avant-garde "degenerate" artists, all Bolshevists and all Jews. Academic styles were encouraged, typical of the official art of all modern totalitarian regimes. Easily understood by the people at large, these were amenable to use by the state.

Hitler, soon after his rise to power, realized the possibilities of using art as an effective propaganda weapon for influencing the people, for sanctifying his own image and for disseminating his political doctrines. To create a facade of historical continuity for the military buildup and growing warlike spirit during the 1930s, German artists were asked to create "historic" battle paintings, commemorating feats of German armed might in the Prussian tradition by reusing the standard subject matter and iconography from World War I.

When the Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939, artist-correspondents went along representing commercial newspaper syndicates, and, before the fiasco of the Russian front, German newspaper artists at home composed illustrations for dispatches from the front designed to show the public only the triumphs of the German troops.

After visiting the front lines in 1941, and perhaps seeing art works by talented soldiers, Hitler directed that an official art program be organized. By the spring of 1942, 80 combat artists with support personnel were assigned to such work. The project was headquartered in Potsdam where a unit of military painters and propaganda artists was stationed. Other war artists worked within military districts of greater Germany, for the German Navy and Air Force.

From 1941 on, the art produced by these programs was widely exhibited throughout Germany and occupied Europe "for educational and cultural purposes." Professional Direction

RLUCTANT TO gamble on the esthetic sensibilities of his military commanders, Hitler insisted that the program have art-professional direction. For this, He appointed Luitpold Adam, a minor portrait painter and loyal Nazi Party member, who had been a World War I combat artist. Adam's experience and professionalism were responsible for the comprehensive scope and considerable artistic quality of the war art. Many of the artists who stayed on in Germany, although conservative in style, were nevertheless very good artists. Nothing less than professional competence and technical excellence were tolerated and members of Adam's staff who did not meet his standards were carefully weeded out. The rest were schooled in special skills fundamental to military painting.

Adam realized that a sense of immediacy and authenticity could be realized only by artists working in the midst of battle. Artists were assigned to combat areas for three months, based with the propaganda companies which were assigned to Wehrmacht field units. They returned to studios in rear areas to complete their works.

All sketches and studio paintings were registered at the Potsdam headquarters. Registered works made on active duty belonged to the Wehrmacht; studio paintings made from combat sketches and drawings apparently remained the private property of the artists, since they were later purchased by the Army. Conditions during the last months of the war did not allow for efficient registration or collection procedures, and much of the work remained in possession of the artists.

Adam embraced the Nazi art ideology. He understood that in order to educate and inspire the "Volk," art had to conceal many of the realities of contemporary life. The brutal events of the war needed purification for home consumption. Soldiers in combat situations were to be represented as courageous and strong, almost never seriously wounded. Battle scenes were to be heroic and dramatic, with few traces of blood and death. Human suffering was to be eliminated from scenes of devastated cities while material destruction was emphasized.

To his credit, Adam believed that Nazi military troops were sufficiently acquainted with the bloody aspects of combat, and that they should be more interested in works of art depicting the larger corollaries fo the war. Along with numerous documentations of routine military subject matter, combat artists produced large groups of landscapes from the regions in which they fought, portraits of characteristic types of people who inhabited the occupied territories and sympathetic depictions of all nationalities and races who opposed the Germans in the front lines. These tangential subjects comprise a very large part of the collection.

For the most part, combat scenes are depicted objectively, without propaganda, many even conveying the horror that the German artists felt about the war. After the invasion of Russia the art takes on a particularly tragic and discouraged aura - with scenes of miserable infantrymen slogging through the Russian snow - concern with the tragic plight of refugees, comments on the sadness and boredom of war.

By January, 1945, when the Allies threatened to overrun Germany, Adam was ordered to find a place of safekeeping for the thousands of works that had accumulated. They were hidden in salt mines and dance halls, castles and huts, in Austria, the Bavarian Forest and Munich, among other places. Potsdam Agreement

IN JUNE 1945, the United States Government took steps to insure that materials related to the war would be taken into custody. The War Department established a Historical Properties Section in the Office of the Army Headquarters commandant: "to provide for the collection, processing, preservation and control of war paintings, photographs, maps, trophies relics and objects of actual or potential historical interest or value produced during the war which were or might become the property of the War Department."

Other Allied nations - Britain, Russia, France - also were concerned. Under the provisions of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945, it was stated that one purpose of the occupation of Germany was: "to destroy the National Socialist Party and its affiliated and supervised organizations, to dissolve all Nazi institutions, to insure that they are not revived in any form and to prevent all Nazi and militaristic activity on propaganda."

In late 1945, a military government regulation was issued directing that "all collections of works of art relating or directed to the perpetuation of German militarism or Nazism be closed permanently and taken into custody."

Capt. Gilkey shipped to the United States early in 1947 the enormous collection of 8,722 works of visual art found in the American Zone of Occupation. Under the War Department orders, no discriminating judgment or screening was involved. Gilkey recently said that if he had been on art jury duty, perhaps a total of 200 works would have been confiscated from the various military, individual Nazi leaders' and Nazi Party collections. Legal Ownership

THE QUESTION of the legal ownership of the art first arose prior to the return to Germany of a group of paintings in 1950. The judge advocate general, highest legal authority of the United States Army, recognized that the art had been seized after the hostilities were over,and not captured during the war.

He said that it is a well recognized principle of international law that enemy public property which may be used for military operations is subject to seizure by an invading or occupying force. The rule was stated in Article 53 of the Annex to the Hague Convention of October, 1907. The Army field manual regulations dealing with war booty provide that other moveable property must be respected and cannot be appropriated and private property susceptible of military use may be seized, but must be restored and compensation fixed when peace is declared.

About the art, the judge advocate in 1950 stated that his office had consistently expressed the view that property should be returned. Some 1,659 paintings were shipped back.

The West German government wanted nothing to do with the Nazi war art, and refused to participate in returning the works to the artists. In 1953 the art was placed in storage with other military art, where it was recently rediscovered.

The Secretary of the Army in 1960 decided that the collection should be reviewed under the liberalized criteria for possible return to Germany. Our State Department had no objections, and West Germany agreed to accept the art if it were offered. The recommendations were considered by the U.S. chief of military history, but no further action was taken.

In 1973, as a result of some prodding by a private U.S. art historian, the chief of military history re-examined the situation. The judge advocate general, despite his office's decisions over the preceding quarter of a century, stated unequivocally: "The German War Art Collection is the property of the United States Government."

He noted, however, that current conditions in Germany should be considered. Pictures which, when seized in 1945, might have been rightly viewed as likely to encourage militarism or Nazism, might now legitimately be viewed as harmless. He stated that an act of Congress could authorize the return of the collection. This option was considered and dismissed by the chief of military history who - after 30 years - found it unnecessarily time consuming and complex.

Over the years, numerous German artists wrote to request the return of art which they claimed never belonged to the Wehrmacht or the Third Reich, but which were privately owned. The United States Army continued to respond by citing the Potsdam Agreement.

My article, "Art of the Gotterdammerung" was published in 1975 in Art News, and revived interest in the long-forgotten collection both in the United States and in Germany. The Army was finally forced to take steps to remedy some of the deterioration of the collection after 30 years of neglect. Much of its $30,000 yearly appropriation has gone into restoration of huge Nazi propaganda paintings.

In May, 1976, a German television network screened a program about the War Art Collection in Germany, the first time that these works were shown there since the war. The government in Bonn was besieged by letters from artists requesting the return of their works, and from families of artists who died in the war, anxious to get back the only existing works by their dead sons, brothers and husbands.

In September, 1976, the first international symposium, "Art in Germany Under National Socialism," took place in London. My paper on the War Art Collection and slides of works seen for the first time by a group of younger German art historians present at the meeting stimulated their interest as they became aware of the true content and quality of the collection. The Bonn government came under increasing pressure from its own nationals to ask for restitution.

Finally, the Federal Republic of Germany submitted an official request for return of collection. U.S. Policy

THE WAR ART Collection is an intergral part of German history. It comprises a substantial percentage of all art remaining from the Third Reich. These works are essential elements in the long, painful process in which the German people are still trying to evaluate and understand the Hitler tragedy within the context of their own history.

The relatively few works which can be considered Nazi propaganda paintings, only one generation after they were created for the Thousand Year Reich, appear so pompous and ludicrous that they are laughable to all but the lunatic fringe, neo-Nazis in Lincoln., Neb., as well as in Hannover.

In 1951, our Department of State said: "The policy of the United States Government is one of respect for artistic and historic property of all nations . . . It is the desire and intent of this government that when the final settlement is reached, all cultural property dislocated by the war will be restored to the rightful owners."

Can there really be any hesitation now?