The sudden swirl of events involving old Nazis, neo-Nazism and interest in the Hilter era that has sprung up here in recent weeks is providing a puzzling and troublesome spectacle to many people inside and outside West Germany.

In recent days, government spokesmen have begun to complain that their country's image is being unfairly distorted in the press of other countries because of these episodes.

As the spokesmen point out, West Germany is among the most stable democrates in the West, and its extreme neo-Nazi fringe is largely old and politically insignificant. But Bonn's current image problems are due at least partly to the actions - or lack of them - by government leaders.

The events that have unfolded here are confusing. Though they all deal in some way with Nazism, they are not really related.

The dramatic escape of 70-year-old, Kappler from a Rome military hospital to West Germany almost two weeks ago first focused international attention on the situation here.

Kappler, who had served 29 years of a life term for directing the reprisal murder of 335 Italians in 1944, was spirited out of his hospital bed in a large valise by his wife.

What has hurt Bonn's image so much in the Kappler case is not that the West German constitution prohibits extradition of Kappler, whose whereabouts are known, back to Italy; rather, it has been the official insentivity here to the feelings this situation created in other countries.

The West Germans are in the position of actually protecting Kappler. Officials here spent most of the first week after his escape trying to explain why Kappler could not legally be extradited. It was only this week that government spokesmen got around to a clear expression of sorrow about what had happened in the past and sympathy for Kappler's victims.

The government, however, has never condemned the escape of the former SS colonel and, despite the international flap, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has not said a word publicily about it.

Last year West German government and political leaders had appealed for mercy in Kappler's behalf so he could be granted his wish to come back home to die, and public sympathy to leave Kappler alone is clearly dominant here.

So it seems good domestic politics for Schmidt and others not to say anything. But it has clearly cost the West Germans outside their border.

In the midst of the Kappler episode; a letter form former Chancellor Willy Brandt - undoubtedly the best-known West German in the world today - appeared in a newspaper and warned the government to do a better job of cracking down on a resurgence of neo-Nazi activity.

As it turned out, Brandt, the chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party, had written the letter to fellow Social Democrat Chancellor Schmidt on July 12. A chancellor had not paid much attention to the letter since then and that the party press service had decided on its own to publish it some six weeks later, in the midst of the Kappler affair.

The letter was prompted, Brandt said later, by a few dozen complaints he received in June and July about neo-Nazi activities that were taking place openly without being stopped by local authorities.

Brandt, still a major figure to the left-center of his party, suggested that authorities looked for leftist radicals more than those on the right, an observation that prompted some to suggest that Brandt too was playing politics with West Germany's image.

The Schmidt government stunned by publication of the letter, rejected his accusations.

On the other hand, Brandt's warning about what he called "a tiny minority" of neo-Nazi radicals was seen by many others as a healthy sign, as West Germany still gropes for way to deal with its past.

In the weeks just before the Kappler case, a wave of new interest in the Hitler era had been provoked by a dramatic new documentary film called "Hilter - A Career," that continues to play to packed theaters around the country, and a flood of magazine articles and serializations about the Hitler era.

This upsurge of interest provoked worry in some quarters about a Hitler-nostalgia wave, but many other people also saw this as a healthy sign as well, in terms of improving understanding of youngsters in particular, about the Hitler era and in dealing more openly with the troubled past.

Most Germans seem to be taking all of this rather calmly. There have been upsurges of interest in the Nazi past before, and those have been far more serious.

In 1969, a resurgence of the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party under the leadership of Adolf von Thadden aroused widespread fears by winning almost 1.5 million votes, or 4.3 per cent of those cast, in federal elections.

Since then, Thadden's party has ceased to be represented in any West German state or federal legislature, recording only 122,000 votes out of more than 38 million cast in last year's federal elections.

Many of those voters are among thousands who still attend scores of old SS reunions around West Germany - the kind of thing that troubles Brandt but that the government basically does not interfere with, viewing the participants mostly as dying species.