The specter of neutralism has surfaced again in West Germany, aroused by recent proposals calling for a nuclear-free zone in central Europe.

West Germany's major political parties insist that their country is firmly anchored in the western alliance. But the threat of neutralism, latent in any debate here about nuclear weapons, has emerged as a key theme in the rhetorical combat before the March 6 elections and has underscored Soviet efforts to influence the campaign.

The latest twist in the Soviet "peace offensive" aimed at Western Europe calls for a nuclear-free zone 600 kilometers (373 miles) wide that would incorporate most of East and West Germany. Moscow's plan enlarges upon Sweden's suggestion last autumn to ban short-range nuclear weapons across a 300-kilometer (188-mile) strip in central Europe.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, responding last week to an East German appeal to ponder the Soviet offer, brusquely declared that the idea of a nuclear-free zone was "not a point of discussion for me."

The opposition Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor, Hans-Jochen Vogel, charged that Kohl's comments were incomprehensible and said if elected he would "constructively examine" Sweden's plan for a limited nuclear-free zone. At the same time, Vogel ruled out the Soviet version because he said it would exclude from West German soil U.S. nuclear weapons that form a vital part of the West's strategic planning.

Vogel rejected Kohl's view that the Swedish proposal would hinder the Geneva arms control talks between the United States and the Soviet Union on restricting intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.

He claimed the initiative on a limited nuclear-free zone "would supplement the Geneva talks in a field where at present there are no negotiations, namely tactical nuclear weapons already in place with all the potential dangers."

A Social Democratic government, Vogel continued, "would therefore constructively examine the Swedish proposal in accordance with our security interests."

Vogel's frequent use of the phrase "in German interests," which adorns his campaign posters around the country, has been attacked by Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher as evidence that the Social Democrats perceive national interests as distinct from those of the alliance and thus intend to orient West Germany toward a more neutral course between Moscow and Washington.

"The political language used these days regarding 'our interests' and 'the two superpowers' indicates a tendency toward equal distance between the United States and the Soviet Union," declared Genscher in a recent speech in Frankfurt. "Is this equidistance already neutralism? It is most certainly a step in that direction."

"There is no room here for wanderers between two worlds," he continued. "A neutralistic Germany that is free of ties between East and West could not withstand the undertow of the Soviet Union."

Genscher's argument, however, appears to have made little headway among the voters, who, according to most polls, are still not expected to give his Free Democratic Party enough support to clear the 5 percent hurdle needed to hold seats in parliament.

Many Germans wonder why they are not entitled to express the same apprehensions found elsewhere in Europe, as well as the United States, toward the prospective deployment of modern nuclear missiles later this year if the arms talks fail.

Recent public opinion surveys show that 58 percent of the populace does not feel Pershing II and cruise missiles are necessary for their defense. Vogel's vow to do all he can to "radically reduce" the Soviet arsenal of SS20 nuclear-tipped rockets and thus nullify the need for new missiles in the West to meet that threat has clearly helped his party gain ground in the polls.

The Social Democrats are leaning toward the view that even if the missiles prove to be necessary, they should be based on submarines, not on land. That policy line, along with support for a limited nuclear-free zone in Europe, has enabled the Social Democrats to glean votes from the antinuclear, ecology-minded Greens party.

Kohl and Genscher, on the other hand, have found it difficult to win broader public sympathy for their parties' views that if the negotiations fail, the new missiles must be deployed on land to counter the Soviet medium-range nuclear force and fulfill commitments under the "twin track" decision reached by the NATO in December 1979.

Genscher admitted as much in his speech when he said "the actual neutralism debate is concealed and probably many people are not fully aware of it, because it is taking place over the options of our security policy, over such questions as a limited nuclear free zone or acceptance of a Soviet middle-range nuclear monopoly."

The efforts by the governing parties to brand Vogel as a dangerous neutralist also have been eroded by public recognition of the fact that Social Democratic views on the arms issues, to a large extent, derive from loyal voices in the western alliance.

The commission of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme that conceived the limited nuclear-free zone scheme, which was published last fall, also included former British foreign secretary David Owen and former U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance.

The ability of the Soviet Union to exploit or extrapolate ideas generated by the arms debate in the West, says a senior Foreign Ministry official here, explains some of the success of the Soviet "peace offensive" aimed, as he puts it, at "creating vague feelings of anxiety among us."

"When I see how Jonathan Schell's book, 'The Fate of the Earth,' has become a best seller and the idea of a nuclear-free zone is so popular," he said, "I understand how easy it is for the Soviet Union to exploit what we in the West produce ourselves."