History and geography play a significant part in the differing reactions to events in Poland of the governments and peoples on either side of the Atlantic. All deplore in varying degrees the apparent snuffing out of the gains won in Poland by Solidarity over the past 16 months. The disagreements emerge when it comes to deciding how much carrot and how much stick to apply in response.
As a result President Reagan went ahead alone last week in announcing modest unilateral sanctions against the Polish government, and again this week against the Soviet government.
Of the major governments in the Western alliance, that of West Germany is being most criticized for being odd man out. Its reaction to events in Poland is proving noticeably more cautious than that of its allies.
Cynics and Germanophobes are inclined to see in this a hint of that common contempt for Poles often shared by Germans and Russians over the past three centuries. Germans and Russians partitioned Poland twice during the 18th century and kept it partitioned till the end of World War I. Hitler and Stalin partitioned it again at the outset of World War II.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, embarrassingly, was in East Germany conferring with East German leader Erich Honecker when Wojciech Jaruzelski initiated the crackdown in Poland. Equally embarrassingly, Mr. Schmidt's first comment was, ''Mr. Honecker is just as shocked as I am that this was necessary.''
This was open to unfavorable interpretation by Mr. Schmidt's critics. But to be fair to him, he has since spoken out more bluntly against what Gen. Jaruzelski is doing.
(Polish Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski is to fly to Bonn Dec. 30 to discuss the Polish crisis with West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Reuters reported Dec. 29.)
To put West German caution in balanced perspective, it must be recognized that West Germany is the most exposed - and stands to suffer most - of all the European allies, if things moved toward rupture with the Russians.
In the extreme event of war in Europe, West Germany would be the main battlefield. But short of that, West Germany would be the most immediate and the main loser if the Geneva talks on restricting theater nuclear missiles were broken off, if trade between Western Europe and the Soviet Union were suspended, or if the Russians forced the East Germans to end traffic and exchanges between the two Gemanys. In addition, West German banks have made bigger loans to Poland than those of any other Western country.
Ironically, the major European government closest to the US in its pronouncements on Poland is the one in which there are four Communist ministers - that of Socialist President Mitterrand in France.
Most other European governments are less unequivocal than President Reagan in seeing the Russian hand in recent events in Poland. These governments argue that premature over-reaction of a punitive nature by the US against either Gen. Jaruzelski or Moscow could precipitate the open Soviet military intervention which the West wants to avoid.
But the French government was the first in Europe to accuse the Russians of ''interfering'' in Poland. It also accused General Jaruzelski of ''repression of a national character.'' This contrasts with the contention of some other Europeans that General Jaruzelski is a Polish patriot struggling to fend off Soviet military intervention.
Behind this French reaction to events in Poland is the long affinity between the two countries. Seeing themselves trapped between two Eastern European peoples - Germans (or more particularly Prussians) and Russians - Poles have always reached out to France to establish a link with truly western Europe.
The association is studded with such names as Chopin, Marie Curie (nee Sklodowska) and more recently Michel Poniatowski and Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet. Mr. Poniatowski was minister of the interior and a close presidential adviser under President Giscard d'Estaing, Mr. Kosciusko-Morizet French Ambassador to the UN and then to the US in the 1970s.
The British and Italian governments are somewhere in between the French and West German extremes in the spectrum of reaction - leaning toward the US but not completely in step with it.
The Italian reaction has to be seen in the context of there presiding over the Vatican in Rome the first Polish Pope in history. Some segments of both Italian and Vatican opinion have been mildly critical of Pope John Paul II for being too Polish-centered when - in his critics' eyes - the mission of the Roman Catholic Church should be more universal. The Pope may have been tacitly meeting this criticism when, in his pre-Christmas address to the College of Cardinals, he gave priority to Central America and the Middle East over Poland as world trouble spots.
There is incidentally a tendency among lay opinion in both Protestant and Roman Catholic countries of Europe to equate US involvement in El Salvador's agony with Soviet involvement in the tragedy in Poland.