Geneva — A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that the new American-Soviet negotiations in Geneva are not about nuclear weapons at all - but rather about the soul of Germany.
Heads of both the United States and Soviet delegations speak fluent German and are as immersed in German culture and history as any Hessian or Saxon.
The American, Paul Nitze, stopped off in Hamburg to see Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on his way to the Geneva opening. The Russian, Yuli Kvitsinsky, used to be deputy to the current Soviet ambassador in Bonn (himself a fluent German speaker and the former head of the Soviet SALT negotiating team).
In addition, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev visited West Germany just before this week's opening of the Soviet-American talks on European (intermediate) range nuclear weapons. The timing may have been fortuitous. But the Russians treated the West Germans with a respect and seriousness that the protocol-conscious Soviet superpower seldom gives a nonnuclear medium-rank state.
Not the least sign of the relationship was the agreement to continue bilateral Soviet-West German contacts on the issue of European nuclear weapons.
On the public relations front both the Americans and Russians are mounting campaigns to get their views across to the West German man in the street. The Russians got there first with a German-language publication entitled ''Europe in Danger.''
The Americans are catching up with a German translation and revision of the recent US Defense Department compilation of ''Soviet Military Power.'' The German-language revisions include insertion of some statistics on American weapons to compare with the original figures on Soviet weapons, and a shift to Bonn-centered maps to show the impact of Soviet weapons.
It is not yet clear how effective the Soviet and American pitches will prove to be among the three main West German targets: the news media, the antinuclear movements, and the silent majority.
Until President Reagan's Nov. 18 peace speech the Russians were winning the competition hands down. West German television has found little good to say about America or the Reagan administration since last January. And the grass-roots movements opposing new NATO nuclear missiles have had a field day quoting Soviet professions of peaceableness and Reagan administration professions of toughness.
This changed overnight with the Reagan speech proposing an intermediate-range nuclear ''zero option'' in Europe - and with the Brezhnev visit to Bonn four days later. The Reagan speech gave Washington the peace initiative, even on the skeptical West German TV. And Brezhnev's domination of the TV news for four days in the company of Schmidt paradoxically served to bestow a Soviet blessing on Schmidt's close identification with Washington's missile and arms control policy - and to undermine the antinuclear movement's claims that Schmidt's policy dangerously offends the Russians.
At the same time Soviet press and information chief Leonid Zamyatin's abrasive performance during the Brezhnev visit served to undermine the Soviet image of injured reasonableness vis-a-vis Reagan. His implicit threat of Soviet retaliation if West Germany accepts new NATO missiles clashed markedly with Brezhnev's nonemotional, business-like demeanor