BONN — Hundreds of thousands of East Germans in five cities demonstrated Monday night for political and economic reforms as the nation's new Communist leader warned them not to destabilize the country with what he termed excessive demands.
A reported 300,000 marchers turned out in Leipzig, the nation's second city, in the sixth successive weekly demonstration calling for more democracy in the nation of 16.6 million.
And 80,000 people took to the streets in the much smaller northern city of Schwerin, holding candles in a silent protest as they carried banners demanding more freedoms and urging the legalization of the largest opposition group, New Forum, which claims 30,000 members.
Thousands more gathered in the city of Halle, near Leipzig, bearing pro-democracy banners and marching to the local Communist Party headquarters.
Additional thousands marched in Karl Marx Stadt, where they chanted for "democracy now," in Magdeburg, where they demanded civil rights, and in the smaller cities of Cottbus and Poezneck.
In Leipzig, according to the official news agency ADN, the protesters insisted that the Communist leaders be called to account for the current political and refugee crisis, shouting, "Reformers to power!"
The protests were peaceful and not hindered by police. The total number of demonstrators Monday was estimated to be the largest in East Germany since the workers' riots in 1953, when Soviet army tanks were deployed to restore order.
The protests came on the eve of a visit to Moscow by the new Communist leader, Egon Krenz, for a meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. East German demonstrators have been demanding reforms similar to those championed by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.
Although the East German regime allowed the demonstrations to proceed, Krenz issued a caution to dissidents Monday. In a speech to military school graduates in East Berlin, he promised to preserve the party's hold on power.
"Whoever draws the conclusion that our party is not in the position to perform its leading role misjudges the strength of our party, misjudges the experience of our party and underestimates the more than 2 million members and candidate members whom the party unites," warned Krenz.
"We all bear the responsibility for making sure that normal conditions prevail on the borderline between socialism and capitalism."
In his speech, the 52-year-old Krenz seemed to be walking the same tightrope he has trod since he took over less than two weeks ago from the ailing, deposed East German leader Erich Honecker--that is, promising changes but insisting that they be within the structure of the Communist Party.
"Our party has turned its face completely to the people and is looking the truth in the eye," he told the newly commissioned young officers. "Whoever wants to find correct answers to the complicated developments in our society needs a realistic analysis of the situation, free of wishful thinking."
East Germany, traditionally one of the most hard-line of Communist states, has watched demonstrations grow ever larger since Krenz took over the chief leadership posts, becoming general secretary of the party and later chief of state. Although he was in charge of a crackdown on dissent three weeks ago, he has ordered the police not to interfere with demonstrations over the past three weeks.
The East German crisis dates back to last spring, when Hungary, a fellow Communist state, opened its border with Austria. In numbers that swelled to tens of thousands, East Germans began using Hungary and other East Bloc states as routes to the democratic West.
Many East German cities have been the scene of mass demonstrations as growing numbers of East Germans who have chosen not to emigrate to the West, emboldened by the ouster of Honecker and by Gorbachev's call for reforms, have marched in growing numbers to call for more openness in their own regime.
Earlier Monday, Krenz announced that he would visit Moscow today and Wednesday to meet with Gorbachev. The East German seems to have established more cordial relations with the Soviet leader than did Krenz's former mentor, Honecker. The archetypal hard-liner who had led East Germany since 1971, Honecker was removed as head of the Communist Party by the party's leaders after the mass defections brought the regime to a crisis of confidence.
Gorbachev, who has introduced wide-ranging and fundamental political and economic reforms in the Soviet Union, has encouraged reforms in Poland and Hungary and has urged East Germany to keep up with the times.
Krenz told Soviet Television on Monday that he was hoping to learn from his quick Moscow trip.
"First of all," he said, "I would like to get acquainted with your experience of implementing" changes called for by the party leadership.
Krenz has called a meeting of the East German Communist Party Central Committee for Nov. 8-10 at which a major shake-up of the ruling Politburo is expected.