A squatters' movement that began months ago in shabby, vacant tenements in a rundown section of this city has spread into violence-laced street demonstrations across the country and stirred inevitable comparisons to Vietnam War-era disruptions associated with the rise of West German terrorist gangs.

Though similar in form and temper to the 1960s disorder -- with injuries, property damage and arrests in more than a half-dozen cities in recent weeks -- the new wave of demonstrations has important differences.

Unlike the Western European youth movement a decade ago, revolution and renewal of society are no longer the dominant themes. Today's protests, which began in response to West Germany's very real housing problems, focus on concrete, not ideological, demands -- improvements in housing, new youth centers, alternative energy sources. Their most widely quoted slogan is "No power to no one."

Officials view the recent actions as merging loosely with West Germany's growing antinuclear power movement and with other more local citizen action campaigns. Similar movements have developed in neighboring Switzerland and in the Netherlands.

Last weekend during a rampage of protest across the country three youths set fire to the Berlin Reichstag, which is now a museum, in a chilling replay of Hitler-era violence.

West Germany's federal and local authorities are divided along party lines about how to deal with the expanding movement. The conservative Christian Democrats, who govern major urban centers in the south where protests have occurred, favor a tightening of demonstration laws.

The Social Democrats, who control the federal government and rule locally in Bonn and West Berlin, worry that more restrictive measures and a tougher police response would only escalate the incidents of violence.

The list of recent clashes covers the map of West Germany and beyond:

In West Berlin, more than 100 empty apartments previously marked for demolition have been occupied by protesters. Initially the object was to draw public attention to the city's housing shortage, prevent demolition of worn tenements and restore them.

But the protests exploded into street demonstrations and battles with police three months ago, and this has complicated attempts at a compromise by city authorities. Lately, rioting has become a frequent occurrence.

Last Friday, police raided a left-wing West Berlin newspaper, Tageszeitung, to block publication of what was considered a call for revolt. An unsigned advertisement in the paper headed "Black Friday the 13th of March" urged "decentralized actions by guerrillas in all parts of the city and opened with the sentence "Today the city shall explode."

In Nuremberg, situated in the conservative southern German region of Bavaria, police arrested 141 youths earlier this month who were believed to have participated in a demonstration. It was the largest mass arrest in West Germany since the end of the Third Reich and was widely condemned outside Bavaria as excessive use of police power.

The arrests were made after the demonstration, with police rounding up the suspected protesters at a youth center away from the scene. It later turned out that many of those arrested had not participated in the protest.

Squatters and street fighting have also appeared in the southern city of Freilburg and in the northern cities of Bremen and Hanover. Fearing further outbreaks, federal and state leaders have scheduled a meeting in early May to assess the situation. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, according to a source close to him, met privately with youth experts and with spokesmen for various youth groups but received "only lots of analysis, no solutions."

In Zurich, brawls between protesters and police have flared a number of times within the past year. In Amsterdam, police have also clashed periodically with bands of radical youths and squatters.

The protesters have purposely avoided choosing leaders. A large majority are under age 30, and only some are students. Some of them speak of searching for new forms of living -- an alternative life-style quest that has been described as seeking solidarity without bureaucracy.

Others among them are prone to violence -- leading police and conservative politicians to fear that another West German terrorist cell might be in the making. In the mix, too, are so-called professional demonstrators -- an assorted bunch who seem to turn up at whatever rally happens to be going on.

In West Berlin, official response to the movement has been dubbed the "soft touch" approach. The protest movement here is most developed because of the prevalence of substandard housing and the presence of a large number of disaffected young people and discontented foreign workers.

Mayor Hans-Jochen Vogel and his Social Democratic Party face difficult elections in May and, in the interest of avoiding the escalation of violence, have restrained police and attempted to negotiate with the squatters.

But the protesters have refused to take up Vogel's offer of quick renovation of some old apartments and greater attention to housing problems in the future. They first want amnesty for arrested demonstrators -- something Vogel, already under heavy criticism from some quarters for seeming to legitimize the illegal occupations, says is not possible.

In his defense, Vogel told the weekly newspaper Die Zeit last week, "What would be gained if actions were taken to evict these people from one house since they would just go and occupy the next one? . . . For me the main criteria is what must be done to improve the situation? What will bring us ahead? What will get us over this unsatisfactory state of affairs?"

The official attitude is different in Bavaria, as exemplified by the "hard touch" approach used by police in Nuremberg.

Bavaria's state premier, Franz Josef Strauss -- a staunch law-and-order advocate -- sees the protests as the "nucleus of a new terrorist movement." He wants to equip Bavarian police with rubber bullets and chemical gases in order to give them a better fighting chance against the protesters.

Federal Interior Minister Gerhart Baum says there is no evidence of a new terrorism emerging from the recent protest wave, although 70 of the 1,300 squatters and sympathizers investigated by police in the past year were found to have terrorist associations.

West Germany's notorious Red Army Faction, responsible for a spate of left-wing terrorist killings and kidnapings in the 1970s, itself grew out of the protest movement of the 1960s. The group has not carried out a major attack since the murder of 1977 of West German Employers Association leader Hanns-Martin Schleyer.

The political battling over methods to counter the movement has tended to divert attention from a root cause of the protests: West Germany's housing shortage. A drop in new housing construction has coincided with a rise in demand, causing a severe pinch in some cities.

West German housing starts peaked in 1973, a fact attributed largely to the adoption the following year of tough tenant protection legislation. For the last two years, new housing construction has limped along at the lowest point for a generation.

Bureaucratic hurdles to new construction have also been blamed. So has mismanagement. Many empty tenements that have been squatter targets do not belong to speculators, as is often suspected, but to nonprofit housing construction enterprises, some of them publicly owned.

It was to draw attention to perceived official indifference and inaction on housing needs that a small group first occupied an apartment in the poor Kreuzberg section of West Berlin in February 1979 and subsequently seized other vacant units.

"We had written letters, we had talked to politicians before that, but no one helped us," said Kuno Haberbusch, a spokesman for a Kreuzberg citizens' action group. "We started occupying houses because that was the only way to get action."