When U.S. and Soviet negotiators sit down later this month in Geneva for the start of talks on limiting European-based nuclear weapons, the people of Wildenrath will be among those watching most intently.

How did things get to this point? Why should this small town in Germany be so uneasy at a time when America is feeling more sure of itself?

The turning point here came gradually, but a shift in mood was already discernible last winter. Clear U.S.-European differences over the value and future of detente with the Soviet Union had emerged sharply last year during efforts by the Carter administration to win European support for sanctions against Moscow because of its invasion of Afghanistan.

Then the election of Ronald Reagan, with his anti-Soviet rhetoric and ambitious military spending plans, alarmed many. The scare remains, despite the administration's move to a more moderate tone.

Hans Julius Pott, a 35-year-old high school teacher of literature and language and Wildenrath resident, is one of those who is worried. What brought the nuclear weapons issue home to him, literally to his own neighborhood, was the publication several weeks after Reagan's inauguration of a long article in Stern magazine, the largest circulation illustrated weekly in the country, about atomic weapons located in West Germany.

On the cover was a picture of an American Lance missile, like the ones stationed in West Germany. Inside was a map purportedly showing the siting of nuclear weapons in the country.

"The map of Germany from the Baltic to Lake Constance," said the article in a passage reflecting its excited tone, "would look like a kid with measles if every single nuclear depot, every command post and every military unit for nuclear weapons were marked on the map with a red dot. About half of these dots would represent a destructive force of at least 1,000 kilotons."

Wildenrath had lots of dots in and around it. They represented the British Royal Air Force bases in Wildenrath and Brueggen, eight miles to the north; the Pershing Ia missile site in Arsbeck, two miles north; and the Nike-Hercules antiaircraft missiles 13 miles north in Hinsbeck and 10 miles southeast in Kirchherten.

To complete the picture, a NATO air command center is in Moenchengladbach, 10 miles northeast of Wildenrath. Such crowding by the military is a simple fact of life in West Germany -- a country which, the size of Oregon, plays host to several hundreds of thousands of allied troops and their equipment.

On top of the weapons already in the area, the Stern article drew attention to the new U.S. missiles planned for deployment beginning in December 1983. It quoted West German research institute experts as saying rearmament would make nuclear war in Europe more likely.

Even before the new missiles arrive, the allied air base in Geilenkirchen, 10 miles south of Wildenrath, is due to take a batch of AWACS radar planes as part of a NATO project. The planes are viewed by protesters as another sign of the West's military escalation.

The Stern story was a kickoff, of sorts. It provided peace movement organizers with graphic and seemingly authoritative material. It also introduced what was to become one of the most controversial aspects in the national debate, the role of the press.

Six Wildenrath families who read the article decided to take action. They attended a regional meeting at which a national organizer -- Gunnar Matthiessen, from the Cologne-based and communist-associated Committee for Peace, Disarmament and Cooperation -- provided tips on how to begin to organize locally.

This particular chain of events would seem to reinforce government claims that the peace movement is communist-inspired. But involvement by communists, while a central factor, is only part of the story.

In May and June, several demonstrations were held in Wildenrath and surrounding towns, largely for informational purposes. One rally included a march on the Pershing Ia missile site in Arsbeck. A U.S. flag was burned -- an act which, although deplored by organizers of the protest, highlighted the platform for violent anti-Americanism provided by the movement.

After a summer break, some from here traveled to Bonn to participate in the October 10th demonstration, which drew 250,000, the largest protest rally in postwar Germany.

The greater Wegberg area, which includes Wildenrath, has a civilian population of about 25,000. It is a largely Roman Catholic, conservative district that votes Christian Democratic.

Although grassy fields and clusters of small towns give the appearance of a farming region, there are comparatively few farmers. To a large extent, this is a bedroom community. About 60 percent of the people who live in Wegberg commute to office and factory jobs in Moenchengladbach, Duesseldorf and other urban centers.

For the most part, the presence of the military is well camouflaged. Forests of poplars block views of missile sites and bases. Bunkers, covered with grass, tend to blend with the greenery. Still, passing along the country roads, it is possible to glimpse the end of a runway or a bunch of British antiaircraft Thunderbird rockets pointing east over nearby patches of turnips.

"We had no problem in the past with the military," said Karl Fell, Wegberg's mayor, except perhaps for the booming noise of frequent overhead flights by British jets, a standard complaint. "The people had thought about the presence before, but they figured things couldn't be changed."

Fell, formerly a judge and now a banker, has little sympathy for the peace movement. The protest, he said, smacks of a Moscow-inspired campaign to undermine West Germany's resolve and the solidarity of the Atlantic Alliance.

He does not expect an increase for the time being in the number of active antimissile campaigners, which he estimates at 100 or so. But what worries him is the widespread feeling of insecurity that has been fostered in the area. He said he is often asked by constituents nowadays whether what the protesters say is true.

In the living room of Pott's home, a half dozen of the people in one of Wildenrath's protest groups discussed their views recently, lunching on sandwiches and glasses of Pott's homemade elderberry liquor.

This particular group calls itself "Borderland Citizens Initiative for Disarmament and Peace." Its members are mostly young, working and, until now, nonpolitical people. They do not belong to the most prominent of the peace movement organizations -- the youth wings of the Social Democratic and Free Democratic parties; the environmental party, The Greens; Protestant youth groups or the Communist Party.

Conversation quickly turned to America -- its policies, its drift, its leadership. "Obviously, people are more worried about what the Americans will do than the Russians," said Wilfried Buschen, a 31-year-old housebuilder. "Since Reagan was elected president, he's done little in the direction of detente. He started with a great rearmament and cuts in social spending. This is frightening for us."

He appears less concerned about the new Soviet weapons, including the medium-range SS20 missiles targeted on Western Europe.

"The angst for Russian weapons has always existed here, even before World War II," said Buschen. "We made our eastern policy, West Germany's detente, for that reason. The new situation is not the SS20s but the NATO missiles. Now we must have angst not only for the Russians but for the United States."

The Soviets, although the enemy, are seen as somehow capable of being dealt with because they are part of Europe and understand the continent's fear of war. But the Americans, an ocean away, are regarded as perhaps more inclined to turn Europe into a battlefield.

The subject of limited nuclear war comes up. The United States is suspected of refining its strategies and weaponry to limit a nuclear exchange to Europe. The new missiles are said to be a part of this trend. So is, for another example, Presidential Directive 59, signed by then-president Jimmy Carter in 1980, which outlines how a strategic nuclear war could be fought.

Until recently, West Germans might have been reluctant to defy U.S. security plans so forcefully. For years, West Germany made a point of its loyalty to NATO, wrapping its post-war identity in the cloth of allied Western interests.

Those common threads are not so easy to find and tailor now. West Germany no longer regards itself as a U.S. client but as a more equal partner. There is greater public attention to the nation's own historical roots as part of a more studied effort at fixing a more modern identity. And there is more talk of specifically German national interests in international political affairs.

The peace movement also seems to some to represent a new German boldness, a new patriotism.

"There is that element, especially for the youth," said Juergen Beu, a 26-year-old record shop clerk. "German politics for so long has been self-censuring. It only went so far in asserting any national interest. We have been a country without an identity. Now there's a generation that doesn't feel guilt. This generation is more free and can pursue its own interest."

But no clear picture emerges of what the desired new German identity should be. "We want the best of both worlds, capitalism from the United States and socialism from the Soviet Union," said Beu. "We want more independence."

Nor is there much thought apparently given to what a European security arrangement might look like without a heavy U.S. involvement. In such case, West Germany's own military role could appear larger. Or West Germany could drift into a neutral status, making reunification with East Germany in the process appear within closer reach. Would other Western European countries, still fearful of German intentions, tolerate either development?

These scenarios do not provoke much comment in the group. Instead, there is mention of the cross-national cooperation among peace groups. The Dutch particularly, who are a short drive across the border from Wildenrath and have the best organized peace drive in Europe, are reported to have contributed ideas to the effort here.

At latest count, about 500 separate peace groups, initiatives and appeals exist in West Germany. Another 300 or so organizations -- from Maoists and Trotskyists to ecological groups -- have added the nuclear weapons issue to their original aims.

By uniting this varied mix, the peace movement has become a kind of "great integrating effort," as Beu put it. This would seem to reinforce the budding sense of a national German way.

There is also a strong social element to the campaign, a factor of plain fun. "We found friends," said Beu.

For Pott, who said he had not been politically active since his student days in Berlin in the late 1960s, the peace movement is "not just work, but parties and so on." He said it "consumes weekends," requiring about 10 hours a week of meetings to prepare handout material, plan rallies and comb through newspapers for relevant information.

In nearby Erkelenz, Pastor Helmuth Spree has turned his 200-seat church, the only Protestant church in town, into a frequent pulpit for the antimissiles campaign. The role of churchmen in the movement is a controversial one, but church and state have a history of contact in Germany.

Spree, 36, finds historical and moral arguments for his involvement, which has lent a certain institutional legitimacy to the activities of those like the group in Wildenrath.

Protestants have tended to be more involved than Roman Catholics, a fact explained variously as reflecting perhaps the traditional evangelical emphasis on individual responsibility or Protestantism's rejection of orthodox doctrine. German Protestants also carry their own sense of collective guilt for not having stood up against Hitler, and this today is also seen as compelling some pastors to speak out politically.

For local churches that have faced a loss in attendance in recent years, getting involved in the peace movement can offer the appearance of a new relevance. But Spree denies any such motivation.

"As a result of my involvement," he said, "some members have stayed home. But others have found new reason to come. On the whole, there hasn't been much change in the numbers."

How far the protest will carry remains one of the great uncertainties still of West German and European politics. But it has clearly had an impact on the consciousness of the people here whose security still rests largely in the hands of foreign powers.

"We haven't had a good discussion on these matters since the 1950s," said Mayor Fell, when asked what good could come of the movement. "Under our eastern policy, people were unfortunately lulled into a false sense of security."

Pott and his friends worry that the government may overreact to the peace drive if it grows much larger, crack down and encourage a conservative backlash. Recently, Pott said, his school director cautioned him about his activities.

"In the end we want an atomic weapon free zone in Europe," Pott said. "But that is for us an ideal. In the 1960s, society wasn't changed to the extent we wanted, but there were changes in terms of more democracy and sensitivity to social concerns, greater awareness, more citizen action intiatives. Perhaps the same will come of this.

"Above all, I guess, we want to show that every citizen can take responsibility into his own hands."