Sandwiched geographically between Lech Walesa and Helmut Schmidt, the East German leadership presides nervously at present over an inherently unstable but still outwardly calm state.

It has become one of the most strident critics of the liberalization taking place in Poland and it has taken several steps to reduce Western influence in East Germany. But at the same time, it has avoided repressive actions against its own citizens and has shown a sensitivity to the needs that led to the unrest in neighboring Poland.

"The fear of Polandization is real here," said one senior Western diplomat.

Several measures -- including the harsh denunciations of developments in Poland, cutting contacts across its Polish and Western borders, and a broadened party effort to reinforce socialist doctrines among the populace -- suggest to Western analysts that East German officials are increasingly afraid of the goings-on next door.

Recently, East German authorities summoned Protestant church officials to warn against their increasingly close ties to Western branches. Protestants form the country's largest religious bloc, claiming about 8 million followers in a state of 17 million.

The government has curbed cultural exchanges with the West and police questioned three East German writers, reportedly for publishing works in the West without permission.

A steep increase in currency exchange requirements, ostensibly to raise hard currency, has sharply cut the number of Western visitors, most of whom are West Germans seeing friends and relatives here.

These moves, which began in October, marked an abrupt shift from what had been a policy of warmer relations with the West and particularly with Bonn.

But Western observers note that the measures, while ominous, are considerably less than East Germany might be doing if it were preparing to end detente and include no repressive moves against the East German public.

"They've drawn the right conclusions from Poland," said the Western diplomat. "There have been no price rises, no forced overtime and teachers recently got a pay rise."

East Germany joined its Warsaw Pact allies at the Moscow summit meeting this month to voice confidence in the ability of Poland's Communist Party to handle its difficulties. But East German officials complain of the damaging spillover effects Poland's economic crisis is having on East Germany's economy, which needs Polish coal.

Taking the lead, along with Czechoslovakia, in the war of nerves against Poland, could be a dangerous strategy for the East German regime. Its strident attacks on "counterrevolutionary elements" -- a highly charged term in the communist lexicon -- could strengthen the resolve of Poland's reformers, thus prompting a Soviet intervention.

East Germany regards the West as a culprit. Its official press published a Dec. 18 speech by Kurt Hager, a Politburo member, claiming NATO states had for years been working on a strategy to create divisions in East Europe.

"It is aimed at inflaming nationalist, antisocialist and anti-Soviet tendencies and at so-called 'liberalization' of political life in the socialist states," Hager said.

He said this strategy was being applied "in the direct and indirect support for antisocialist and counterrevolutionary groups in Poland by U.S. imperialism, West Germany and other NATO states."

Without mentioning Poland, Hager attacked the notion of "pluralist socialism" that he said had been "hungrily seized and disseminated by the imperialist media." He seemed as well to be referring to demands by some Polish commentators that nonparty, church and free trade union representatives be brought into some decision-making alongside communist officials.

Beyond attacking events in Poland, Hager's statement appeared aimed primarily at squelching any ideas that such liberal moves could be applied in East Germany. The East German leadership has toughened its ideological messages to its home audience, calling for strengthened party roots and counseling against dissidence.

There seems little chance that what has happened in Poland could happen in this Ohio-sized nation. The East German economy remains the strongest in the Soviet-led bloc and although some shortages exist, economic hardship here does not approach that in Poland.

It would be difficult in East Germany to forge a bond between workers and intellectuals, as has been done in Poland. Moreover, the Protestant church, while an outspoken advocate of detente, lacks the nationalist bearing of the Catholic Church in Poland, which has served as both shield and adviser to the new unions there.

One European diplomat noted that "revolution is not a German character trait." Passivity is encouraged by the presence of 400,000 Soviet troops in East Germany and a massive internal security network.

Some East Germans, especially younger ones, voice sympathy for the goals of the free Polish unions. But as cautious people, usually well-informed through West German television while seemingly resigned to communist rule, they say the unions are moving too fast.

Perhaps a greater number of East Germans are wary of Poland's restlessness. The tensions next door have given vent to old German-Polish animosities, never far below the surface.

This hostility has been reinforced by economic aid to Poland, seen by some East Germans as a threat to their own standard of living. East German officials have reportedly played on this anti-Polish sentiment to cut off sympathy for the Polish unions and prepare the public for a possible Soviet intervention.

Western governments cannot be sure just what is behind the tension-building actions in Eastern Europe since the signals coming out of East Berlin have been inconsistent.

In mid-December, for example, East German Foreign Minister Oskar Fischer issued a tough warning to West Germany for going along with what he called NATO's "blackmailing threats," but several days later, party chief Erich Honecker called for improvement in ties with Bonn.

In view of such mixed messages, Bonn officials say they have chosen not to retaliate against East Germany for the increase in border travel fees, although it cut family contacts, fostering of which is a major aim of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's policy.

By not hitting back and by reasserting a wish for further cooperation with the communists, West Germany has been charged by some with undercutting Western warnings of serious consequences in the event of Soviet intervention in Poland. Bonn officials deny this.

One government foreign policy expert cautioned. "The East itself may not be confident of what it is doing. There is likely insecurity in communist leaderships, probably infighting. If in fact there is quarreling, then if you send the wrong signals and retaliate, you could easily support the wrong people."