TODAY, the Communist Party in East Germany will try to save itself. This could be its last chance. Instead of holding its all-important congress next Friday, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) suddenly decided to start it today. Significant change is expected at the congress: a new name, a new untainted leader, a new platform, and a new structure.
``What do we need a Politburo for, when we are turning the SED into a democratic party?'' wrote Neues Deutschland, the party newspaper, this week. It also questioned the necessity of a Central Committee and general secretary - ``a structure which Stalin founded in order to seize power for the Communist Party.''
Since the resignation of the Politburo and Central Committee last Sunday, the SED has been shepherded by a 25-member working committee of reformers to prepare for the congress. It was this committee which decided on the early date.
In East Germany, it is becoming dangerous for politicians to wait even a day before making a move. The public is always two steps ahead. Outraged at violence and suppression, they demanded freedom in October. Disgusted by widespread party corruption, they were able to induce the mass resignations last weekend. Now they want elections, and it looks like there's no stopping them.
``Events are moving terribly fast - unpredictably,'' says a Western diplomat here. In view of the last few days, says the diplomat, the SED ``realized it had to do something soon - and the sooner, the better.'' Had it waited a week, he suggests, ``the party might not have lasted.''
The members of the SED working committee have grasped the gravity of the situation. The central question to be answered is ``Why does it make sense to stay in this party?'' said committee member Brigitte Zimmermann, at a press conference at the beginning of the week. ``Maybe we need another party,'' she added.
At the congress, which will be attended by party delegates from around the country, the committee will present a report on causes of the SED's crisis. It will also suggest changes that will lead to ``a modern democratic socialist party'' and push for working groups to handle urgent issues in society. The reform-minded mayor of Dresden, Wolfgang Berghofer, has been mentioned as the man most likely to be elected as the new party chief.
Committee members say they want the party to make a clean break with Stalinism. The crack deepened this week when Egon Krenz, who gave up his powerful post as party chief Sunday, three days later stepped down from the less significant posts of head of state and the military. His final resignations surprised no one.
Mr. Krenz, who was replaced as head of state by Liberal Democratic Party chairman Manfred Gerlach, said he resigned because it was clear that his ties to his predecessor, Erich Honecker, had destroyed his credibility.
Mr. Honecker, apparently seriously ill, was placed under house arrest last weekend. He is living in Wandlitz, a sealed-off settlement north of East Berlin built to protect the party elite in the late 1950s. It was the opening of Wandlitz to the press that sparked public outrage over privileges and corruption in the SED.
Several old-guard communists are also under house arrest in Wandlitz. According to state prosecutors, at least 100 current and former senior communist officials - including nine former Politburo members - are suspected of taking part in a corruption scandal.
Independent and government investigation committees scrambled this week to seal off government and state security offices before more files and data could be destroyed and before more hard currency and valuables leave the country. Citizens in some cities crowded inside government offices to make sure files don't end up in the shredder.
East Germany is still unable to secure the return of Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, a senior trade official who fled the country. He is accused of heading an illegal arms deal.
In East Berlin, meanwhile, members of the police and state security told a city investigation committee that former Politburo member Erich Mielke was responsible for police violence against demonstrators on Oct. 7 and 8. At the same time, an order which Honecker had made for ``security and order'' on that anniversary weekend was also read.