EAST BERLIN, MAY 31 -- East German lawmakers today gave the government broad powers to seize land, houses and businesses controlled by the privileged elite of the old Communist regime.
The action freezes the party's vast holdings -- amassed after it came to power after World War II -- just four weeks before the nation merges its economy with West Germany's and begins shifting state property to the private sector.
Lawmakers also voted to remove the old Communist Party insignia, a hammer and drafting compass, from state buildings.
The government of Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere had asked parliament to let him form a commission that would have the power to wrest away the holdings of the many organizations that existed under the former government.
De Maiziere is to form the commission in the coming days, after which all land, buildings and enterprises owned by the Communists would be held in trust pending an investigation of their value and legitimacy. The new law also gives the commission power to interrogate witnesses, search houses and seize evidence.
The law calls for a system to be set up under which the government could reclaim the property in the public interest, even if the property is in other countries.
The proposal came as the new democratic government grapples with the monumental task of converting state-owned property to private ownership, a prerequisite to unification with West Germany. The German states are to merge their economies and social institutions on July 2.
Gregor Gysi, leader of the reconstituted Communist Party, which now supports a form of democratic socialism, sharply criticized the proposal during a bitter nine-hour parliament session.
"They want all opposition eliminated," said Gysi, whose party is now called the Party of Democratic Socialism. "That is the goal and nothing else." He said his party already has surrendered a large part of its property.
Richard Schroeder, leader of the Social Democratic legislators in parliament, said the proposal is aimed at shedding light on who owns what in the country.
The property investigation would cover all parties, unions and organizations that came into being after 1945.
Prosecutors today charged a former district Communist Party chief from the city of Erfurt, Gerhard Mueller, with breach of trust and theft, the government news agency ADN said.
Mueller, 62, was arrested in December. He is accused of building a luxurious hunting lodge with three baths at a cost of $210,000 in public money.