The growth of citizens action groups is gradually changing the traditional image of West Germany as a nation of "yes-men" who do what they are told.

The movement was catapulted into prominence in the past year or so by the dramatic success of a loose federation of about a thousand organizations with perhaps 300,000 members whose protests against atomic energy have brought West German's once ambitious nuclear power program to an abrupt, and possibly permanent, halt.

But the potential importance of what Germans call burgerinitiativen goes well beyond the nuclear power question.

If unofficial estimates are correct, indicating perhaps 2 million people float in and out of thousands of groups opposing a variety of issues, than more Germans are active today in citizens action groups than are members of the country's political parties.

That level of mass organization seems to at least dent the image of political passivity that has clung, with some justification, to the German character.

The growth of these groups also suggests a certain discontent with the major political parties. According to Social Democratic legislator Liesel Hartenstein, the movement should serve as an "alarm signal" - and possibly to the German press as well - that they are not really in touch with the people.

What does seem to bother politicians is the influence of radicals in some movements, especially the anti-nuclear campaign.

"The movement means a very important change in German politics," said Professor Peter Mayer-Tasch, a political scientist at the University of Munich and author of a best-selling book on the citizens action groups.

"It means German policy no longer can flow only from top to bottom," he said. "For a long time, those who dominated political parties and established pressure groups were from the middle class, so people thought that was all right and that they could rely on those in power. For too long they did not make any effort to control them."

Now, he says, things are changing.

The first major rally against new atomic power plants took place in 1975, yet the entire federal election campaign in 1976 passed with no debate among the candidates over nuclear power policy, nor much attention to it in the press.

In 1977, when the issue exploded, it took Chancellor Helmut Schmidt - a strong supporter of nuclear power for West Germany's energy-short economy - completely by surprise and has hamstrung Bonn policy ever since.

It is this kind of insensitively, Hartenstein and others believe, that tends to confirm the view that both the government and the press are not really listening.

"Some politicians don't even see what the citizens movements mean, Mayer-Tasch said.

Public opinion polls showed, he said, "that perhaps 60 percent of the population do not accept priorities for economic growth if it endangers health and the quality of the environment. Still, the politicians believe they can't afford to change their politics."

Hartenstein adds: "There is really a distance between the parties, the members of parliament and the man in the street and in the factory.The press is nearer to the man in the street, but they [the press] are so consumed by economic and territorial security issues" and by the minute analysis of Bonn politics "that other problems are neglected. So parliamentarians stare into the newspapers instead of listening to the people."

For the most part, the citizens groups are local and not organized nation-wide. The big exception is the anti-nuclear campaign in which a 54-year-old former pharmacist. Hans Wuestenhagen, has established loose links among groups from all over West Germany. That sort of thing troubles German local authorities most because suddenly they are confronted by outsiders.

Membership has become fashionable, and there is a high percentage of white collar people. But some unions, warning that a halt in the nuclear program will hurt jobs and Germany's economic growth, oppose the movement.

Besides the nuclear issue, there are other important examples in other fields.

In March, some 3.6 million people - almost 30 percent of the voters in West Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia - put their names to a joint citizens group initiative that forced the center-left state government to suspend a law that would have reorganized elementary school classes into a cooperative system.

Last fall, two local environmentalists" running on the so-called "green list" of fringe parties, in local elections in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, collectively outpolled the candidates of the Free Democratic Party the junior partner in West Germany's ruling coalition government. The two had been given virtually no chance in pre-vote assessments.

Other groups across the country worry about civil rights or issues such as scare playgrounds and kindergartens, traffic and roads and the preservations of old buildings and landscaping.

For the most part, German political scientists view the citizens movement as "a healthy development, because democracy is only possible with a broadening of the level of those who participate in politics," says Mayer-Tarsch.

"I don't really see any serious anti-party effects or that it means any major movement away from the Democratic party system," said Bonn University Professor Karl-Dietrich Bracher. "The parties will now feel obliged to think things over, but my estimate is rather on the positive side."

Yet, it is precisely because the citizens action groups are outside the established parties, and because of the signs that many politicians still are not paying enough attention to them, that there are fears about the long-term effects on West Germany's political system.

"There is always the problem," said Hartenstein, "that governments are obliged to sometimes rule against emotions when this is better for the whole of 60 million people."

In other words, the concern is that while the movement is important for a lively democracy, the responsibility of elected parliaments for governing must not be blurred, a view that former chancellor Willy Brandit expressed recently.

Hartenstein is a member of a 10,000 member citizens group near Stuttgart that has successfully thwarted plans for a new airport there for 10 years. She believes that citizens group must be capable of more than saying "no.

"They are obliged to have competent representaives," and, she added, "they must avoid becoming the instrument of radicals."

West Germany's antinuclear forces are loaded with radicals and communist groups that seem more interested in making trouble for the government than in the environment.

Mayer-Tasch, however, estimates that the "parasites" only make up about 20 percent of the antinuclear forces and Schmidt actually find their presence coevenient so he can discriminate against the whole movement because of the radical element.

Many Germans reject the image if inherent blind obedience that has [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to them. They cite periods in the mid-19th century and in the Wesmar Republic of the 1920s of citizen outspokenness. More recently they point to the demonstation here in the 1950s against nuclear weapons and rearmament and to the so-called extraparliamentary opposition of the student groups in the 1960s.

What is happening, Mayer-Tasch said, "shows a change in the German character that is unique, at least for the postwar period," in that there is now a much greater broadening of those who politic or make policy in a number of areas.