When Soviet and American soldiers crawled across a rickety bridge here 40 years ago to shake hands on the Elbe River, few if any of them realized that their encounter heralded a new epoch that would rupture the continent into eastern and western camps.

The war-ravaged people of Central Europe welcomed the arrival of the Soviets and the Americans with joy, for it signaled the end of a brutal war and of fascist tyranny. The new superpowers were perceived as liberators, not occupation armies.

But when the partition of Europe became evident at the end of the war, nations and peoples of Central Europe "that had always considered themselves to be western woke up to discover that they were now in the East," wrote the Czech novelist Milan Kundera.

Four decades of Soviet domination have broken many of those western-oriented traditions and the East remains firmly embedded in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. But some of those pact countries seem to be trying to revive religious, cultural, historic and economic links with the West.

For centuries the region of Central Europe played an important part in western civilization. The cities of Leipzig, Prague and Warsaw were renowned as cultural beacons that inspired some of the finest literature, music and art in European history.

Yet the postwar division of Germany, and with it the rest of Europe, into communist and capitalist sectors severed many of those traditional ties to the West.

The balance of forces between military blocs in the East and West has produced four decades of peace and relative stability in a continent plagued throughout history by internecine wars.

It is an accomplishment cherished even by those Europeans who feel oppressed by life within the Soviet empire.

Many Eastern Europeans realize that the future price of maintaining peace on their continent may entail many more decades of being confined by a Soviet security belt.

But if they have become resigned to their roles in upholding a relative military equilibrium between two blocs, Europeans within the Soviet camp are striving to barter loyalty to Moscow on security matters for expanded cultural and economic contacts with the West.

After being deprived of chances for cooperation with the West in the uneasy years of the cold war, East European governments generally have ignored the latest phase of tensions between Moscow and Washington in their avid desire to expand dialogue in the 1980s with Western Europe.

Their primary motive derives from the failure of the Soviet model to provide satisfactory living standards for East European peoples.

The heightened interest in detente with the West also reflects a reassertion of nationalist impulses in Central Europe. In many Soviet Bloc countries, a cultural renaissance is taking place that emphasizes pride in the regional past in ways that couch persisting disdain for the Soviet system.

Communist authorities in Eastern Europe have sought to harness this pride to acquire greater legitimacy in the eyes of their own people by promoting the virtues of involvement with prewar history.

In East Germany, long considered the most obedient hard-line ally in the Sovet Bloc, communist party leader Erich Honecker has pursued an active policy of restoring cultural landmarks and rehabilitating historical figures such as theologian Martin Luther, poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Prussian empire builder Otto von Bismarck -- who previously were condemned for their "antisocialist" tendencies.

In Dresden, so renowned for the arts in the prewar years that it was called "Florence on the Elbe," the famous Semper opera house has been meticulously rebuilt after its near-destruction during a bombing raid.

The policy of emphasizing the "good side" of German history by the East Berlin government is not liked in Moscow, which would prefer to see distinctive national traits among the East European allies submerged in a pan-socialist vision.

But Honecker has been able to carry out such a policy in the interest of securing more support among the East German people, whose attachment to the cultural and historical achievements of their region seems undiminished by four decades of Soviet hegemony.

In Poland and Czechoslovakia, where rebellions against the Soviet system led to bloody crackdowns, the lingering political frustrations are cited as factors in strong religious revivals. In both countries, the Roman Catholic Church has resumed its prewar status as the most important institution outside of government.

The Protestant, or Evangelical church, fulfills a similar role in East Germany, where it shelters a small peace movement opposed to Soviet as well as American missiles and to the rigid militarization of society.

The enduring legacy of western influences has been reinforced in recent years because of Eastern Europe's growing alienation from the Soviet Union.

The efforts to widen relations with the West intensified during the years when the Kremlin experienced a protracted leadership crisis. During the past four years, the ill health of Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko contributed to a perception of paralysis in the Kremlin.

At the same time, East European governments have enjoyed remarkable stability. Hungary's Janos Kadar and Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov have ruled for more than three decades.

Even with the ascendancy of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, and the emergence of younger members of the Soviet Politburo, Moscow's influence over its allies in Central Europe is expected to continue to erode in cultural, economic and even political fields.

Despite Moscow's insistence on more joint projects to tighten economic links within the Soviet Bloc, its governments are rejecting central-planning methods conceived in Moscow and experimenting with market-oriented reforms that have achieved some measure of success in Hungary.

Last year, following the breakdown in arms control talks between Moscow and Washington, both Honecker and Kadar contended that the smaller European countries in East and West had a special political obligation to keep alive hopes for a renewed spirit of detente.

East and West European countries have continued since then to promote more active diplomatic and economic channels. For East Germany, Hungary and other Soviet allies, contact with the West holds out the prospect of exercising some influence on the world stage as well as reaping economic benefits from expanded trade.

The governing authorities in Eastern Europe also have found that stressing national interests, instead of the Soviet Union's, has been effective in mobilizing broader public support. That is why concern about rebuilding detente, which not only reduced fears of war but yielded a greater flow of people and goods across the East-West divide, has become an overriding foreign policy theme for all countries located in the middle of Europe.

Nonetheless, none of the Soviet Bloc allies is entertaining the notion of a fundamental challenge to the postwar structure that grew out of the Soviet and American linkup on the Elbe River 40 years ago.

Even if Gorbachev, who is thought to be eager to reform the Soviet economy, permits a greater degree of latitude among the East European allies, those Central Europeans living within the Soviet Bloc are not expected to enjoy substantially greater personal freedom.

Four decades after the war ended, the equilibrium established between the two military blocs has developed a greater sense of permanency in the nuclear age. Central European peoples are acutely aware that any dramatic shift in the balance, involving a change of allegiance or attempts at neutralist independence by one or several countries, could have dangerous repercussions for the security of the whole continent.

The goal of people and governments in the middle of Europe today, as West German President Richard von Weizsaecker put it, "is to find ways to make the division of Germany and that of Europe as painless as possible."