A formal communique issued in Washington at the end of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's visit there this past week softened the outlines but did not remove or conceal the existence of a wide difference of view about events in Poland - and how to deal with those events.
The German view is shared in softer terms by the other NATO allies in Europe. It tends to see Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski as a Polish patriot whose seizure of military control (in the opinion of the German chancellor) sprang from ''what he believes to be in the best interest of the Polish nation.''
In that same German-European view, the Polish Army is a lesser evil than the inevitable alternative (as they see it) of the Soviet Army. Besides, says the West German chancellor, ''Almost 40 years ago the powers decided in a meeting in Yalta to practically divide Europe into spheres of influence'' which ''the West so far has respected.''
Hence the European allies decline to join the United States in actual sanctions against the Polish military regime or against the Soviet Union. They ''deplore,'' and they promise not to ''undercut'' the American sanctions. But they will not join in the sanctions.
Yalta, a seaside resort in the Crimea, had a lot to do with this difference in view and action.
Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met there from Feb. 3-11 in 1945 as their armies were closing in on Hitler's Nazi Reich. Victory was assured but not yet complete. There was still a lot of fighting ahead. The sense of comradeship in war still dominated the meetings of ''the Big Three.''
The one subject that caused the most disagreement and took up much time was Poland. Churchill says in his history of World War II that ''Poland was discussed at no fewer than seven out of the eight plenary meetings of the Yalta conference.''
Stalin had proposed that Poland be governed after liberation by a committee of refugee Poles in Russia. It was known as the Lublin committee. Its members were handpicked by the Russians.
Roosevelt and Churchill protested vigorously. They insisted that the Polish government-in-exile in London should have a share in the postwar government of Poland and that there should be free elections in which the Polish people themselves would choose between the Lublin and the London groups.
Stalin gave in, on paper. The Londoners were represented in the first postwar provisional regime in Poland. But truly free elections never took place.
At Yalta a more important matter was passed over lightly. The British and Americans had previously drawn up a tentative plan for three military occupation zones in Germany after the fighting. The Soviets would occupy a long eastern slice. The British took the northwest, the Americans the southwest.
There was little discussion at Yalta on this matter. A map that British and American teams had worked out had been accepted by Roosevelt and Churchill at the earlier Quebec conference. The Russians accepted it at Yalta.
Not by conscious intent at Yalta, but in effect, that plan for the occupation zones became a main feature in the postwar map of Europe.
There was agreement at Yalta that Hitler's Germany was to be dismembered. At an earlier time Roosevelt had proposed that it be split into five parts. At Yalta there was talk of a split into two parts with the industrial regions of the Saar and Ruhr to be under international control. But the decision on the postwar condition of Germany was put off for later discussion. The only decisive act taken about Germany at Yalta was the agreement on the three main zones of occupation, with Berlin to be under a three-power administration.
British and Americans agreed on the side to give the French a separate zone carved out of their respective zones. The French were also cut in on the occupation of Berlin itself. The Russians kept their entire zone, which has long since become East Germany. The British, French, and American zones have been converted into West Germany.
So it all started at Yalta. But the British and American delegations present at Yalta did not realize at the time that the zones of occupation they agreed on there would, in fact, determine the division of Europe in the postwar era.
The realization of that division came later as the Soviets progressively fastened their political system on everything that lay on their side of the occupation line (except for West Berlin). Within three years they had added Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria to their holdings.
Since then, the fact of the division of Europe along the 1945 occupation line in Germany and south through the Balkans has been established by action and inaction. It was tested first on June 15, 1953, when the workers of East Berlin rose in rebellion against their puppet rulers and the Russian occupying troops. They marched toward West Berlin expecting Western support. Support never came. Russian tanks did.
The division was tested again in October 1956 when the Hungarians rose against the Soviets, and expected Western help. It never came. The Russian tanks did.
It was tested again in 1968 when the Czechs reached for freedom. This time they expected nothing from the West. At least, the Czechs did not start fighting under false illusions about Western support.
There is another element in the background of the above that has had little or no mention since the Polish crisis broke. Western Europeans lament the treatment that Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles suffer under what is, in effect, a Soviet occupation. But the same West Europeans are not eager to see the present division of Europe disturbed.
The memory of prewar Germany is still strong. Even before Hitler's time Germany had been an abrasive and difficult member of the European community. The Germany of Bismarck and the Kaiser was big, vigorous, and expansionist. Under Hitler, Germany became the biggest and most powerful country in Europe, and the most aggressive.
Postwar Germany does not threaten or menace anyone. It has been cut down by the division of 1945 to ''European scale.'' West Germany has 63 million people; Italy has 57 million; Britain has 56, and France 54. The others feel comfortable with postwar Germany. They would feel less comfortable were it to be reunited. East Germany has 17 million people. A reunited Germany would once again be on a larger scale than the others in the West.
Russia fears a reunited Germany. So do some West Europeans.
The above may have as much or more to do with the difference in attitude toward the Polish situation than Yalta. Americans have largely forgotten the time when Germany was the world's No. 1 troublemaker. The West Europeans have not.
The West Europeans lament what has happened to the Poles. But true and full Polish independence would cut the Soviet Union off from East Germany. East Germany, free of Soviet troops, would automatically gravitate toward reunion with West Germany.
Europe has been stabilized for more than 30 years on the basis of the division of Germany. Europe is accustomed to this condition. Even Germans are uneasy about the problems and the anxieties that the idea of German reunion implies.
Much as West Europeans regret the sufferings of the Poles under martial law today, they are not ready to risk the destabilization of Europe to rescue the Poles.
Americans cheer news of Polish resistance to martial law. Europeans are made nervous by the cheering. They prefer a Polish Army in Poland to a Russian Army. They prefer to think that General Jaruzelski is, as Chancellor Schmidt thinks, a loyal Pole acting in what he believes is the best interest of Poland.
The immediate question is whether the leaders of the NATO alliance will be wise enough and skillful enough to control the problem of the difference in their feelings about Poland.