EAST BERLIN — In an unprecedented move, the Communist government of East Germany resigned Tuesday afternoon amid the deepening crisis over citizen demands for reform.
A brief official announcement said that Prime Minister Willi Stoph and the entire Council of Ministers have stepped down in order to let the Volkskammer, or Parliament, select a new government. It said they will stay on in a caretaker capacity until the new government is formed, but it did not say when that might be.
ADN, the official East German news agency, said Parliament may be convened before the week is out, and almost immediately a cry went up in the streets for free elections.
The resignations do not affect the position of Egon Krenz, who took over last month from the Communist Party leader and national president, Erich Honecker.
Little real power is invested in the 40 or more officials who make up the Council of Ministers. These officials carry out policies laid down by the party's Politburo. Still, the move gives Krenz the opportunity to choose his own ministers.
There were reports in East Berlin on Tuesday that the Politburo itself may step down, at a special three-day meeting of the party's policy-making Central Committee scheduled to begin today.
Seven members of the Politburo, which normally consists of 21 people, have already left since Honecker's departure, either dismissed or forced to resign.
The announcement of Tuesday's mass resignations was made by government spokesman Wolfgang Meyer, who said: "The government appeals to all citizens of the country in this politically and economically serious situation to exert every effort to keep running all functions necessary for the people, society and the economy."
He called for a halt to the flight of refugees to West Germany, saying, "Our socialist fatherland needs each and every one."
Yet the flight to West Germany continued, at the rate of about 200 an hour. Since the route through Czechoslovakia was opened Saturday, more than 31,000 East Germans have abandoned their homes and headed West, according to West German officials.
At some crossing points, East German guards reportedly have relaxed controls to the extent that searches of cars and other vehicles have become perfunctory. What took up to three hours a few days ago is now being done in a matter of minutes, a West German traveler reported.
Under Krenz, the government has moved to meet some of the demands raised by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the country, not only for free elections but for unrestricted travel and recognition of the opposition groups that have sprung up recently.
Legislation has been proposed that would ease travel curbs and allow East Germans to go abroad for up to 30 days a year, but on Tuesday a parliamentary committee rejected it. The lawmakers said a much more sweeping approach is required.
As Meyer announced that the Volkskammer would choose a new Council of Ministers, about 5,000 demonstrators marched to the drab headquarters of the Central Committee demanding free elections.
"Egon Krenz, we are the competition," the marchers chanted.
They distributed copies of a leaflet calling for continued peaceful demonstrations.
As recently as a few weeks ago, any demonstrators would have been kept well clear of the party building. There were armed police present Tuesday, but they made no effort to interfere with the march.
Moderate voices in and out of government have been calling for the government to resign, but virtually no one expected it to happen before today's Central Committee meeting.
Tuesday morning, members of the Potsdam Academy, a party institution, issued an open letter blaming the Communist Party for the critical state of affairs.
"The party's ignorant and arrogant behavior over the years toward reserved and moderate criticism provoked the crisis," it said.
The academics called for an early party congress to work out a bold new reform program.
In West Germany, where the East German refugees are being put up in 52 temporary shelters, the government announced a $4.3-billion, four-year building program to provide permanent housing. This is almost twice what the government had been planning to spend for low-cost housing over the four-year period.
City and state governments in some areas of West Germany have been hard put to deal with the influx. The city of Frankfurt announced Tuesday that it could take no more.
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The East German lurch to reform worries Washington. A12