East German officials invited people to speak their minds this week, and scores who did so at the East Berlin City Hall responded with a jolting five hours of indignation, abuse and demands for political change. The public forum, one of a number in different cities, was meant to be a controlled alternative to the demonstrations that have swept the country in recent weeks. Authorities, however, could hardly have anticipated how intense an outpouring of scorn and bitterness they would be subjected to. Sunday's rally, and Monday's mass protests in Leipzig and other cities, leave no doubt that East Germany has become a land of seething discontent.
What will it all lead to? Beyond some safety-valve measures already promised by Egon Krenz, the new head of the Communist Party, it's hard to discern any signs of impending major change. Travel restrictions, including those imposed after the mass flight to the West by East German travelers to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, are to be eased. The party is prepared to engage in more "dialogues" with non-party groups and individuals. And that for now is pretty much it. At Sunday's meeting, Gunter Schabowski, East Berlin's Communist Party boss, drew an unambiguous line. "The leading role of the party will remain," he pledged, and on that there will be no discussion.
The party will not, in short, accept the course of reform forced upon its sister parties in Poland and Hungary. It intends to try to stand firm against the historic tide of change that is washing over the Soviet Union and other East European countries.
The risks of sticking to such a course, if they aren't already apparent, are likely to be explained in detail to Krenz when he sees Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev this week in Moscow. Gorbachev has been advising more liberal policies in East Germany, and has become something of a popular hero there as a result. It would be surprising against this background if Krenz's trip didn't raise expectations among his countrymen of better times to come.
The real surprise would be if those expections were realized to any significant degree, given the party's seemingly implacable determination to maintain its monopoly on power, no matter what it hears from the people it claims to represent.