A specter is haunting Europe. A hope is tantalizing Europe. The specter - as seen by Western European governments obligated to defend their societies - is the potential decay of the consensus on security among democratic publics.
The hope - as seen by the vigorous peace movements of northern Europe - is for a public moral revulsion at last against the most terrible weapons known to mankind, nuclear explosives.
The catalyst for this dramatic development is NATO's just-begun five-year deployment of the latest generation of Euromissiles. The political cost of these deployments has yet to be tallied.
Clearly the governments have won the first round. The antinuclear protests failed to block the stationing. The initial 41 of the planned 572 American Pershing II and cruise missiles will be operational in Britain and West Germany on schedule by Dec. 31, and in Italy a few months thereafter.
Equally clearly, the new democratization of nuclear policy is not going to go away. Interviews with peace activists, government officials, and academics in Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands suggest the time is past in which citizens wanted to hear as little as possible about nuclear weapons and trusted their disposition to government experts.
What this all means has yet to be charted. The mid-1980s is likely to be a period of groping as governments and antinuclear activists seek to accommodate themselves (or not accommodate themselves, as the case may be) to the new situation.
For the activists the choice of priorities in the next stage seems to lie between influencing public opinion, affecting politics and policies, or turning anti-political by retreating into apathy or violence. For the governments the choice of strategies seems to lie between overpowering the protesters with the reelection of conservative governments (this year in London and Bonn), or campaigning hard to ''reassure'' troubled publics.
But first, a little perspective. What triggered the spectacular rebirth of mass peace movements in Western Europe in the past couple of years after two decades of desuetude?
''There are three structural reasons,'' suggests Gert Krell of the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute, an analytical rather than policy-oriented body. In an interview in London, where he is a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Dr. Krell identified the three as ''the deterrence dilemma,'' ''the alliance dilemma,'' and ''the detente dilemma.''
Dr. Krell presents the ''deterrence dilemma'' by asking starkly, ''What if deterrence (i.e., war prevention) fails?'' The answer is unthinkable for Europeans - especially West Germans, who live at the frontier of the Soviet bloc.
NATO's threat of potential nuclear retaliation for any Soviet attack, nuclear or conventional, is seen as the only way of effectively deterring all war. Yet any implementation of that threat would be sheer suicide for Europeans.
The ''alliance dilemma'' arises from the uncomfortable dependence of a nonnuclear state (which all NATO countries except Britain, France, and the US are) on nuclear protection by another state.
''The first problem,'' Krell explains, ''is, will your ally, in this case the US, really risk destruction of Chicago for, say, Frankfurt?'' Charles de Gaulle, for one, answered this question in the negative and went on to build an independent French nuclear force.
''The second problem is just the reverse: Your ally might come to your defense but in a way you don't like.'' So nonnuclear proteges are as worried about too much defense as about too little defense by a nuclear patron.
The ''detente dilemma'' is posed by the special West German relationship with East Germany, and to a lesser extent with the Soviet Union. Even the staunchly pro-US Chancellor Konrad Adenauer insisted in the 1960s that American Thor and Jupiter missiles capable of reaching the Soviet Union not be stationed on German soil, Krell points out. The US, especially the Reagan administration, does not have this built-in requirement to coexist with geographical neighbors and therefore to balance ''restraint and deterrence, deterrence and moderation.''
These ''structural'' dilemmas, Krell says, were ''laid to rest for a couple of years because detente was so successful in the 1970s.'' They have been revived in recent years by the ''circumstantial'' factors of the ''crisis of detente'' and the ''crisis of arms control.''
It is, says Krell, ''the belligerency of the superpowers, especially the Reagan administration, which has really forced people to look at these structural problems. I know journalists who have discovered this for the first time. . . . The young generation for the first time in their lives really had to face East-West conflict.''
The new missiles now being deployed, Krell continued, ''bring all these various concerns together.'' Since the Pershing II, with a flight time of about 12 minutes, threatens Soviet soil from West German soil in a novel way, this weapon could invoke even more catastrophic salvos by Soviet missiles if deterrence ever does fail.
Germans and other Europeans worry as well that Washington might brandish Pershings in ways Europe might not like in case of East-West confrontation in some other region such as the Mideast.
Moreover - as demonstrated by the Soviet suspension of Euromissile, strategic , and conventional arms control negotiations following the first NATO deployments - the new NATO missiles bury any hopes of East-West detente in the near future.
Finally, Krell adds, the Euromissiles' acute raising of all the old slumbering issues was intensified by European alarm over early Reagan administration rhetoric about using nuclear weapons to fight and even win a war in Europe.
These are the underlying European concerns that the peace movements have articulated.