The entire East German Communist Party hierarchy, led by head of state Egon Krenz, abruptly resigned here Sunday in a stunning new blow to the prestige of the party and state.
A 25-person "working committee" of reformist members was named to replace the leadership until a party congress begins Dec. 15 to assemble a new leadership acceptable to the restive, pro-democracy masses.
The mood of Sunday's special session of the party Central Committee, which voted to dissolve itself and the Politburo, was caught by a member of the new committee, Heinz Albrecht, who spoke to thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the party headquarters.
Under a lowering dark sky on a misty Berlin day, Albrecht declared: "It was not possible to go one step further with criminals."
And Wolfgang Ullmann, a leader of the opposition group Democracy Now, added: "The loss of authority by (the Communist Party) was so rapid and obvious that this was the only possible consequence."
During the daylong Central Committee session, ousted leader Erich Honecker, 77, was expelled from the Communist Party that he led for 18 years, and members learned that three recently fired Politburo members have been arrested on corruption charges.
Krenz, 52, will remain in the ceremonial post of president, or head of state, which he inherited from Honecker on Oct. 18. But political analysts here said Sunday that there is little likelihood he will lead the Communist nation after the December meeting.
Although Krenz immediately threw open the Berlin Wall and pushed through other reforms, he could not keep pace with grass-roots demands for swifter change and the punishment of corrupt party leaders.
At the congress, a new Politburo, Central Committee and government is expected to be selected--and new national policies laid down.
Reformist Prime Minister Hans Modrow, who took over the new government only recently, will remain in a caretaker role, consulting with the new committee and handling day-to-day affairs until the Communist Party congress.
The Central Committee's mass resignation indicated the depth of anger building up against senior Communist officials during a series of revelations about their high style of living--when they preached austerity for everyone else.
Gregor Gysi, a prominent lawyer named to the 25-member committee, declared on East German radio that the group's first action would be to set up a commission to investigate charges of corruption and abuse of power.
On Sunday, the official news agency ADN said former Politburo members Guenter Mittag, who headed the economy, and Harry Tisch, who was in charge of labor unions, had been jailed for fraud and mismanagement.
Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, the foreign exchange negotiator, was thrown out of the party and said to be a fugitive from justice outside East Germany.
Former Prime Minister Willi Stoph, ex-Parliament President Horst Sindermann and State Security Minister Erich Mielke, who wielded vast power, were also expelled from the Communist Party.
Also arrested was Gerhard Mueller, a former party leader in Erfurt and a non-voting member of the Politburo.
In a statement to cheering party members in the square outside the party headquarters in central East Berlin, lawyer Gysi declared: "Comrades, we have the say now, not to fritter away public trust once again but rather to decide together what will become of our party.
"We should never let this responsibility slip from the hands of the people again."
Among the better-known members of the new working committee--none of whom served on the Politburo--were Markus Wolf, for almost 30 years head of East German espionage and a recent reformist, and the popular mayor of Dresden, Wolfgang Berghofer.
For weeks, Krenz has been trying to keep the leadership afloat with a succession of dramatic measures, such as the opening of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9.
Krenz himself denied any complicity in corruption and quickly moved from the senior Communist officials' enclave in Wandlitz to a more modest home in the Pankow district of the capital.
But, despite his and the government's moves toward the political and economic reforms demanded by demonstrators, his popularity and credibility dwindled day by day--particularly when East Germans saw pictures of the homes and hunting lodges reserved for party bigwigs.
Krenz recently admitted that at least 10% of the members have fled the party, which once numbered 2.3 million.
On Friday, Parliament voted to take away the monopoly on political power that the Communist Party enjoyed since the founding of the East German state in the postwar division of Germany.
Just before the mass resignations were announced Sunday, hundreds of thousands of East Germans joined hands to form a chain across the country, part of a new demonstration to keep up the pressure for reforms.
Honecker's expulsion from the party was a pathetic ending for a figure who had appeared to be the grand old man of East German communism.
A lifelong party man who spent a dozen years in Nazi jails and who thought he was creating a triumphant, socialist state in East Germany, the white-haired, distant Honecker appeared to be above corruption.
But recent reports and photographs suggest that he and his Communist confederates lived like Nazi chieftains--fond of deer hunting, good food and wine, with television gear able to pick up satellite stations from the West.
While Honecker and the others boasted that their economy was the best in the Communist world, it was fast failing, according to experts here, and people were realizing that socialism was not working for them.
In his speech to the people Sunday afternoon, lawyer Gysi declared, "We want to set about creating a modern socialist party from below."
The Communist Party congress will have to work hard to achieve such goals, for as Egon Bahr, a leading member of the West German opposition Social Democrats, said Sunday night: "The party has beheaded itself. It is dead. There will have to be a completely new party--perhaps with a new name."