The intense Soviet pressure that compelled East German head of state Erich Honecker to call off a planned trip to West Germany later this month provided a stark reminder to leaders in both German states that their sensitive relations cannot be insulated from protracted East-West tensions.

Both Honecker and Chancellor Helmut Kohl have reaped political dividends at home from their efforts to sustain a rapprochement between the two Germanys during a phase of tense hostility between Moscow and Washington.

The 72-year-old East German leader has greatly enhanced his stature among his people through cautious defiance of Moscow in seeking to establish a better dialogue with Bonn.

That move could eclipse his reputation here as the ruthless hard-liner who as security chief built the Berlin Wall in 1961, and it reinforced a growing belief that he is intent on using his twilight years to establish a place in history as a man who sought to reconcile the two Germanys.

Chancellor Kohl has proudly touted the improved ties with East Germany as the greatest accomplishment of his two years in power that otherwise have been marked by minor political scandals and mediocre management.

For Kohl, a summit this month with Honecker would have provided a satisfying rebuttal to opposition critics who contended that acceptance of Pershing II missiles in West Germany by his government would ruin relations with East Germany.

But the political attractions of buoying public hopes about improved ties also carry high risks of disappointment, especially if any of the key partners of Bonn and East Berlin begin to fear the explosive content of emotions stirred by visions of German reunification.

In this case, the prospect of witnessing a symbolic affirmation of detente between the two Germanys at a time when Moscow has tried to freeze East-West contacts proved intolerable to the Soviet Union.

Gunter Gaus, the Social Democrat politician who served for seven years as West Germany's representative in East Berlin, said he fears that the trip's cancellation may portend that the two Germanys "will ultimately be drawn into the tensions now prevailing between Moscow and Washington."

Gaus praised Honecker for the "great courage and moderation" of his initiatives to build dialogue and said it would soon be regretted that "we did not make better use of his efforts."

But Honecker's refined grasp of the workings of Kremlin politics probably suggested that the trip, however badly he wanted to see his boyhood home in the Saarland, was not worth the potentially drastic repercussions in Moscow.

East Germany has long demanded that for normal relations to be established, West Germany must agree to four conditions: acceptance of separate East German statehood, exchange of ambassadors, establishing the border down the middle of the Elbe River and removal of the Salzgitter center that monitors "crimes against the people" by the East German government.

The West German government said such conditions remained non-negotiable. In an effort to come up with something that Honecker could consider a political success acceptable to Moscow, some advisers urged Kohl to offer to sign a joint declaration renouncing the use of force.

But the chancellor, perhaps wary of ruffling the United States, which is skeptical of such a pledge, disagreed -- leaving only the meek issue of environmental cooperation as the centerpiece of the agenda.

Nonetheless, Honecker still seemed willing to come to West Germany, if only to burnish his international stature. In the end, though, even at a time of evident weakness and mixed political signals from Soviet leadership circles, Honecker apparently felt obliged to bow to hard-line wishes in Moscow. The ultimate fate of his rule can be said to rest not with his popularity at home, but with the Kremlin.

The East Germans charged that "unworthy and detrimental" remarks about the trip by leading West German politicians prompted the cancelation.

Some right-wing hard-liners in Kohl's ruling conservative coalition still have not made the leap of faith to embrace the value of friendly relations with the communist authorities in East Germany. Kohl opened himself to charges of spoiling the visit by appearing Sunday at a rally of Germans expelled from territories lost in World War II.

For more than a month, Soviet press attacks against the Bonn government have insisted that it seeks to recreate a unified Germany within pre-war borders, regaining lands now within Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

But the expressed reasons for scuttling the visit appear to be a pretext covering the insistence of the Soviet Union that Honecker's trip to West Germany must await a time of Moscow's choosing.

Kohl has managed to promote better ties with East Germany without engendering too much anxiety in the West because of the confident, friendly relations he has nurtured with President Reagan and French President Francois Mitterrand.

"If the Social Democrats had tried to carry out what Kohl has been doing, Washington would be climbing the wall over the fear that Germans were going neutralist or selling out to the East," a western diplomat commented.

Kohl indicated that after the American elections he is prepared to redouble his efforts. Stressing that "our most important neighbor in the East is the Soviet Union," he said, "There is no question; the talks will go on."