EAST BERLIN -- East Germany has ordered its guards at the Berlin Wall and the West German border to stop shooting civilians trying to flee to the West, West German officials and western diplomats say.

Several former East German frontier guards, who have crossed the heavily fortified border illegally to live in the West, have said that their superiors told them in recent months to use firearms only in self-defense, or if a soldier or policeman is trying to flee, according to the western officials.

East German chief of state Erich Honecker indirectly confirmed the reports at a meeting here with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead on Nov. 11.

The shift in policy, if it continues, would remove one of the most bitter irritants in East Germany's relations with the West. More than 175 people have been shot and killed at the Berlin Wall and the border between the two Germanys since the wall was erected in August 1961 to halt a surge of emigrants to the West.

Honecker, who presided over the wall's construction, is believed to have changed the policy to "reward" the Bonn government for welcoming him in September on the first visit to West Germany by an East German leader. The shift also fit in well with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to improve East-West relations, western diplomats and other analysts said.

East German officials, while refusing to comment directly, hinted in interviews last week that the Schiessbefehl, or "order to shoot," has been curtailed.

Honecker told Whitehead that an incident at the Berlin Wall on Oct. 29, in which shots were fired, was "a mistake," West German officials and western diplomats said.

"I was assured that changes had been made which would make it much less likely that people will be shot at again," Whitehead said after the meeting. Without divulging details, he said he "got the impression that there has been a real change."

At the end of his trip to West Germany, Honecker acknowledged publicly that the borders "are not as they should be." He said conditions on the frontier would improve if the two Germanys continued to work toward better relations.

"One can say that the rules {at the border} depend on the general climate between the two states," an East German ministry official, who spoke on condition that he remain unidentified, said here last week.

"It might be said that there has been a change in accent" in the order to shoot, the official said.

The East German policy shift was designed in part to help pave the way for additional trips by Honecker to major western countries, western analysts said.

Honecker will visit France in January. The trip will be the first to that country by an East German leader. It is noteworthy because it will be the first such visit to one of the three western powers responsible for protecting West Berlin's status as a noncommunist city.

France, the United States and Britain have had ultimate responsibility for governing West Berlin, a western exclave 110 miles inside East Germany, since the partition of Germany after World War II.

East Germany has a particularly strong interest in building diplomatic relations abroad, because it was shunned by most western countries for more than two decades after it was founded in 1949.

East German officials strongly welcomed the visit by Whitehead, the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to visit East Berlin.

Another reason for the shift in policy may be that an upgrading of border barriers in recent years has made the boundary significantly more difficult to cross. "The East Germans' attitude seems to be: we catch most of them anyway," a western diplomat said.

Under heavy western pressure, East Germany removed mines and automatic shooting devices from the border in 1984 and early 1985.

At the same time, the East Germans began installing electric alarms on the ground in front of the border and on many of the concrete walls and wire fences that mark the boundary.

East Germany also widened the area on its side of the border where citizens need special permission to enter. The "border zone" is as wide as three miles in many places.

The West German government first learned of the curtailing of the order to shoot in July, when former border guards described the new instructions during questioning after their flights to the West.

At first, the change was implemented only temporarily in March or April. The purpose appeared to be to avoid embarrassing shooting incidents around the time of visits to West Berlin in the spring and summer by President Reagan, French President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, West German officials said.

The order to shoot had been suspended during other politically sensitive periods in the past, so there did not appear to be a major change in policy.

In August and September, however, newly arriving border guards said their superiors had distributed new instructions, apparently open-ended, in late July, the West German officials said.

Since the Honecker visit, other guards have confirmed that the order to shoot remains suspended for civilians, except in cases of self-defense, the officials said.

West Germany initially hesitated to make public the shift in policy, because of the danger of prompting a flood of would-be emigrants that might lead the East Germans to start shooting again.

"I certainly don't want to have a dead body on my conscience," said a Bonn official who specializes in relations with East Germany.

West Germany also points out that there has been no change in the East German laws that authorize border guards to shoot people seeking to flee.

"This is the basic problem." a West German official said.