BONN -- For 40 years, the West German government kept enough food hidden below West Berlin to feed the entire city for months: 350,000 tons of groceries, 200 million bottles of beer. It was a $1.6 billion insurance policy against any Soviet attempt to starve the West.

This month, Germany started shipping the Berlin reserves -- the entire contents of an underground city -- to hungry Soviets. No charge, no comment on the irony.

What the Germans started, much of the West is now scampering to join. From telethons, ad campaigns and rock songs to billion-dollar government grants, Western Europe is mounting an unprecedented emergency relief program for one of the mightiest countries in world history.

It took decades to bring the nations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to a state of such deep political, economic and environmental decay. Yet only a few months came between the heady revolutions of '89 and the grim realization of '90 that the dimensions of need were enormous. If the end of communism is to be the start of a new era of European harmony, then many in the West say they must focus on helping to repair the social and economic disasters wrought by all those decades of neglect and oppression.

But how? In this critical moment, as food shortages and nationalist movements raise the prospect of widespread disorder and mass migration, Western governments and investors alike struggle to find the right prescription. The revolutions of 1989 are not flowing neatly into a new era of democracy and growth; instead, the former East Bloc threatens to become a new and massive drain on the West's increasingly tight resources.

As the dominoes fell last year, optimistic Western leaders pledged moral support and assured frightened citizens from Poland to Romania that the natural mechanisms of capitalism would soon bring them help. Investors smelling new markets would pump resources into the long-shuttered nations.

It hasn't happened. With another tough winter beginning and infant governments struggling to retain both their democratic ideals and basic control over their countries, the West suddenly is grappling with a dilemma no one wants, especially not at the dawn of a possible worldwide recession.

Should it risk letting the nations of the former Soviet Bloc unravel into a mess of sputtering economies, strongman governments and waves of emigration, or move quickly to salve the wounds and start the healing?

From Tokyo to Washington, London to Bonn, no one knows exactly how to come to the rescue. The Bush administration came late to the idea and still is not comfortable with it. Even the leading advocates of quick action, the Germans, are publicly wondering whether there will be an end to this new category of expenses.

"Here is our universal chance for peace," said Axel Lebahn, Deutsche Bank's adviser on Soviet and East European affairs. "But whether we are pushing shock therapy or emergency food aid, this is much larger and much more complicated than the Marshall Plan."

Experts who earlier this year predicted a wave of Western investment in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and above all eastern Germany now are facing a harsh reality. Without basic foundations -- a banking system, efficient distribution, modern railways, energy networks, dependable telephones -- companies are loath to pump money into the emerging democracies.

Even in eastern Germany -- the East's best hope, with the advantages of a common language and culture with a rich natural partner -- the proud expressions of interest at the start of this year have yet to pay off in jobs or factories. Asked to name a success story of Western investment in eastern Germany, the Bonn government, Deutsche Bank and several other European nations all come back with the same answer: Sorry, nothing yet.

The Soviet Union's moment of optimism came and went. "Our industries looked very favorably on helping perestroika four or five years ago," Lebahn said. "Now there have been no big successes in the joint-venture business. The Kremlin let these investors down completely. Investors are no longer prepared to go into the Soviet Union for political or even humanitarian reasons."

With investors and the crucial small and medium-sized companies holding back, Western governments face increasing pressure to pave the way by helping eastern countries to provide the infrastructure and political stability essential to market-based democracies. Now, fears of a winter of hunger and hopelessness have sparked public and private charity drives designed to protect what political progress has been made.

The idea, couched in terms of simple humanitarian aid, is to stabilize Mikhail Gorbachev's government and encourage his so-far tentative efforts at economic reform. Gorbachev at first worried about appearing too pathetic, but agreed nonetheless to sign a "Dear friends" letter to the German people, published in Stern magazine, outlining the extreme need in his country. He even came up with a wish list -- 500,000 tons of meat, 500,000 tons of vegetable oil, 100,000 tons of noodles, etc.

German TV ads used a liberal dose of guilt, showing scenes from the Nazi Wehrmacht's 900-day siege of Leningrad to encourage gifts to latter-day starving Soviets. Germans responded, and so did the European Community two weeks later, announcing a $1 billion aid program.

In a telethon on Dutch TV last week -- complete with an audience cheering for Jerry Lewis-style announcements of the latest tally -- celebrities sang, danced and joked to spark sympathy for the poor Soviet Union. Even before the European Community's pledge, the Soviets had tallied more than $200 million in international charity for the coming winter.

German charity groups report so much success in their Soviet campaigns that collections for Third World aid -- which depend almost wholly on Christmastime giving -- have dropped by as much as 95 percent. "The real need is still in the Third World," said CARE Germany program manager Peter von Oy. "Russia's problem is one of distribution."

At the CARE offices in Bonn, von Oy sits surrounded by maps of Africa and admits that he is presiding over a Soviet aid drive so massive that "we can't get the food in Germany. We have to find it in other European countries. I've been working on development aid for 17 years. I've lived in Africa. In all that time, I've never seen even a tenth of a reaction like this."

Organizers say the German response is a sign of gratitude for Gorbachev's role in ending the tensions that for decades made Germany ground zero in the superpowers' nuclear planning. But there are other reasons, too.

"It also comes from a hidden feeling of guilt about what Germany did to Russia in the war," von Oy said. "And people here remember the CARE packages the Americans gave us after the war. We want the Russians to realize they are part of the European family."

Germans raised more than $40 million in three weeks. Convoys of trucks, cargo ships and planes leave daily for the Soviet Union. On board are aid workers charged with making certain that the gifts do not suffer the same fate as the Soviets' own superb harvest of this year -- rotting in freight yards and storage facilities.

The real causes of the Soviet need -- a disintegrating distribution system, corruption and widening political strife -- have led many to argue that pouring in aid may be a waste. Skepticism is rising; the resignation of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has sharply bolstered the doubters' arguments. In anticipation of mass flight from the Soviet Union, the Swedish and Norwegian governments have begun setting up refugee camps and tighter border controls.

Even the Germans have begun to question their munificence. Wolfram Hatesaul, who runs a training program for Soviet managers, argued that "the hunger aid will end up in the wrong hands. We must give the Soviets help to help themselves. If we have all these resources available to help the Soviet Union, why not put them to work in institutions that are beginning real economic change?"

The Bush administration started out skeptical about the German effort. Senior policymakers still doubt whether the West can do much to reverse the Soviet economic plight. But a combination of political pressures and the warming of relations with Moscow have pushed Bush to agree to a modest aid package.

As late as this summer, he resisted calls for aid by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand, refusing to do much beyond ordering a study of the Soviet economy. Last week, Bush said, "There is good reason to act now, in order to help the Soviet Union stay the course of democratization."

Between those moments came the deteriorating Soviet political situation and increasingly close cooperation between Washington and Moscow on such issues as German unification, the Persian Gulf crisis and Cambodia. As Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Shevardnadze stepped up the pace of their meetings, the Americans offered advice on housing, banking and other aspects of economic reform.

The advice seemed to go nowhere. But the evolving relationship needed something from the U.S. side. As Gorbachev told Fortune magazine this month, "If something goes wrong with us, it will affect the entire range of relations in all the spheres of international politics."

An old block to U.S. cooperation with the Soviets eased as emigration of Soviet Jews reached record levels, allowing a relaxation of trade restrictions.

Finally, despite continuing concern that food aid might make it easier for the Soviet leadership to delay real reform, the administration shifted gears -- even though the White House still expresses deep doubts that emergency aid will solve any of Gorbachev's problems.

The Soviet Union "is not the Sudan," a high-ranking State Department official said. "It is not Ethiopia." But "there is fear in Soviet society, and that is worth addressing," he said.

In the end, Bush decided to use short-term aid to combat the psychology of hoarding and supply snags resulting from the battle for authority between Moscow and the breakaway republics. The administration's long-term strategy remains to join institutions like the World Bank in pushing for reform and encouraging private investment.

Germans say they cannot comprehend Washington's doubts about sending massive aid now. "The State Department says it's only a problem of distribution," a top German official said. "That may be true, but that doesn't help the man in the street, and it doesn't help Gorbachev. Isn't it better to pay for housing and food there than for armaments here? There is no more Iron Curtain, but there is an economic fence and the social needs on the other side, combined with the nationalist movements, can be explosive."

"The masses in America got to know Russians only after World War II and only as part of the anti-Communist feeling in America," said Marion Doenhoff, publisher of the weekly Die Zeit and a leader of the Help Russia campaign. "We Germans have always had connections to Russia. For centuries, they have been our neighbors, and generally friendly."

While historic friendship may loosen holiday purses, investors have shown little such sentimentality. What money is going east comes from precious few sources. To date, nearly half the investment in the old Eastern Bloc has come from Germany and Austria, according to James Rollo of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

Investors are encouraged by progress in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Volkswagen last week announced a $6.5 billion, 10-year investment program in Skoda, the Czech automaker. Suzuki Motors has formed a joint venture with Ikarus, a Hungarian bus builder, to make passenger cars. And Opel, the GM-owned German auto company, is going ahead with a $680 million plant in eastern Germany.

But the other nations of Eastern Europe remain too risky, investors say. Romania is too unstable, Bulgaria has a bad reputation because it has reneged on its foreign trade payments, Yugoslavia is on the verge of breaking up, Albania is just beginning to emerge from decades of total isolation. "There was a lot of unreasonable optimism a year ago, just as now I would say there is a lot of unreasonable pessimism," Rollo said.

There has been little American investment in the East; U.S. and German officials could come up with only two examples of American companies putting money into eastern Germany.

In Britain, people who make investment decisions "are holding back until spring to see how they get through the winter," said Jeremy Elgin, of the Eastern Europe Trade Council in London.

John Major, the new British prime minister, has maintained the view of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, that rather than a handout, the eastern countries need help reorganizing their societies. Toward that goal, Britain has established a $195 million Know-How Fund aimed at providing Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union with Western technology and management expertise.

Japan, the world's largest foreign aid provider, has shown more rhetorical than financial interest in the region. Japanese tourism in Eastern Europe is up about 15 percent this year. But although Japan has agreed to put up 8.5 percent of the capital for the European Development and Reconstruction Bank, a multinational effort to raise money for investment in the former Soviet Bloc, Eastern Europe so far accounts for less than 1 percent of Japanese trade.

"We have to be sensitive about the reaction to Japanese investment," said Hideaki Domichi, chief of the Eastern Europe division of Japan's Foreign Ministry. "There seems to be a feeling that Europe's concerns should be decided by Europe."

Beyond this winter, the real hope for the former Soviet Bloc is an economic transformation like that underway in eastern Germany. Poland has started currency and banking reform, boosting the interest of Western investors. But in country after country, legal uncertainties remain about the ability of Western companies to own property or hire and fire workers.

Under the right conditions, lots of money can be made. East Europeans are hungry for the trappings of Western life -- the cars, color TVs, video recorders and prepared foods eastern Germans have now rushed to spend their savings on.

It will, however, take years for even the most advanced eastern countries to become attractive investments. Until then, Western governments now realize, the burden rests on the public sector.

"The East Europeans don't yet understand the Western system," said Deutsche Bank's Lebahn. "We have to help them see that they must create success stories, as the Americans say. A few super projects, not a Potemkin village, but reproducible results. Then everything will follow."

Staff writer David Hoffman in Washington and correspondents Glenn Frankel in London and T. R. Reid in Tokyo contributed to this report.