After gloating for months over the rise of nuclear disarmament campaigns in the West, East Germany is now confronted with one of its own, representing the strongest grass-roots challenge to a Soviet-backed defense policy anywhere in Eastern Europe.

Those involved in the campaign are attacking, at some personal risk, what they call the excessive militarization of life in East Germany and the one-sided slant of official propaganda that blames only the United States for the arms race.

Limited to small youth groups, Protestant churches and some intellectual circles, the protest drive here has only a fraction of the scope and force of Western peace movements. But its development inside the Soviet Union's most powerful military and economic ally was apparently viewed as dangerous enough this spring to warrant a stern police response.

Claiming that military service among East German youth was being undermined, security officials stripped emblems of the protest--felt patches reading "swords into plowshares"--off jackets of hundreds of youths who had joined the cause. Students are being threatened with expulsion from universities for their involvement. Others have been questioned by police.

A new military service law, decreeing for the first time that women can be drafted in an emergency, was passed in March. Meanwhile, Communist authorities have sought to co-opt the protest slogans, claiming a sort of official monopoly on the peace issue.

The crackdown poses a moral and tactical dilemma for the East German Protestant Church, which had tried to channel concern about national defense policies along less confrontational lines.

A real blowup with the government would jeopardize the improvement in church-state ties that began four years ago. On the other hand, for the church to react passively would suggest a loss of conviction and risk a loss of credibility, particularly among young people church officials are hoping to attract as members.

So far, the church, which represents about 8 million of the 17 mil-

The drive has only a fraction of the force of Western peace movements, but was apparently viewed as dangerous enough to warrant a stern police response. lion East Germans, appears intent on speaking up. "The church wants to speak politically but doesn't want to make politics," one informed clergyman in East Berlin said.

In the past two months, church leaders have issued several sharp statements accusing state officials of confusing gestures for disarmament with actions against the state.

A letter last month signed by Bishop Werner Krusche of Magdeburg, leader of the East German Protestant Church Conference, said, "We fear that the actions of the state bodies are leading to difficult problems in the relationship of basically well-intentioned youth to the state and for the inner peace of our society and the personal development of young people."

On the surface, there would seem to be parallels between the East German church's arbitrating efforts and the role played by the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. But a senior clergyman here argued that the situations are not similar, since the Catholic Church traditionally has had a more dominant position in Polish history and society than has the Protestant Church in modern Germany.

The social forces at work also are different. East Germany's peace protest hardly can be termed a movement. It is more a loose amalgam of groups and individuals, spurred by a mix of impulses--part youth fashion, part religious principle and part political opposition.

Western diplomats in Berlin said a Polish-style uprising would be unlikely here, in part because East Germany has too efficient an internal security system and in part because the East German Communist Party is too strong.

Also, East Germans generally show a kind of satisfaction in the gray prosperity they have managed to create out of their own brand of disciplined socialism, in contrast to the deeply disgruntled mood in Poland.

The East German protest is not fundamentally pro-West or anticommunist. A 23-year-old warehouse clerk, seen in Weimar still wearing the banned peace emblem on his jacket, said he and his friends continued to view the United States as the main culprit in the nuclear arms race.

Two things cause concern for East German officials. First, even muted criticism of Soviet arms is apparently considered a dangerous chink in a Communist propaganda effort that wants all the focus on NATO weapons. Second, and more directly threatening to East Germany's military effort, are church and youth demands that conscientious objectors be provided a civilian service alternative to the draft.

As the leadership surely realizes, the issue is not just weapons. Like the West German peace movement, the protest in East Germany contains an element of pan-German nationalism.

This emerges in the so-called Berlin Appeal, issued in January and now reportedly carrying 700 signatures, including those of some church officials. The statement calls for the withdrawal of Soviet and American "occupation troops" from the two German states and the signing of peace treaties officially ending World War II to guarantee "noninterference" by the former Allies in the affairs of East and West Germany.

The appeal echoed a letter sent to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev last October by the late East German communist dissident, Robert Havemann. His death in April at the age of 72 has left a gap near the radical edge of the East German protest.

Rainer Eppelmann, 39, a Berlin pastor who was close to Havemann, is being watched as possibly the next torchbearer, although he lacks Havemann's stature as a seasoned opposition figure. Eppelmann is credited with initiating the Berlin Appeal.

The first signs of the protest surfaced in Dresden last spring. This city has one of the highest concentrations of Protestants in East Germany and also a harsh memory of war. An intense bombing raid by U.S. and British forces on Feb. 13, 1945, killed 35,000 persons and gutted the center of this one-time German cultural capital.

Individuals and youth groups asked Dresden church officials for help in petitioning for a civilian substitute to the draft, such as service in hospitals and old-age homes, as West Germans have had since the late 1960s.

East Germany does offer youths who do not want to carry a gun the chance to do military construction work instead. But because military

The high point so far was a peace forum in Dresden in February that drew 4,000 to 6,000 persons. Police let the event happen. The crackdown came later. uniforms are still required for that work and the building projects are integrated with military activities, this is not acceptable to most conscientious objectors.

Last August, the Dresden church said it deplored the "ever-increasing weight of militarism in our society" and suggested a 24-month peace service as an alternative to the required 18-month military service.

The criticism recalled objections raised by church officials in 1978 against paramilitary training for schoolchildren and compulsory classes on national defense policy.

The East German protest burst briefly but spectacularly into the open Feb. 13 this year, when a peace forum at the Church of the Cross here, followed by the candle-lit singing outdoors of ballads at the memorial ruins of the Church of Our Lady, drew 4,000 to 6,000 persons.

Police let the event happen. The crackdown came later.

Several Western diplomats speculated that East Germany's current economic difficulties may be causing the Communist leadership to be especially wary of any domestic unrest. In any case, both church and government appear reluctant to escalate the conflict. Plans to build a number of new churches in East Germany are proceeding, marking an important concession won by the clergy in recent years. By accommodating the church, the East German government, in turn, has gained in its bid for international recognition and may believe it has furthered its aim of weaning the East German Evangelical Federation away from West German church connections.

Besides accommodating the church, the government also continues to attempt to co-opt the peace protest's own slogans. Authorities have turned the phrase "Make peace without weapons" into "Make peace without NATO weapons."

Or as East German Defense Minister Heinz Hoffmann put it recently, "Much as we would like to scrap our weapons one day, socialism and peace need both our plowshares and our swords."

But government slogans may not be enough to stop the campaign. Speaking shortly before he died about the protest he helped launch, Havemann wrote to a West German newspaper: "It has, let us hope, gained unstoppable momentum."