It was one of the most heavily guarded lines of demarcation between East and West, between the Communist and non-Communist world: the border between Hungary and the neutral country of Austria. But on May 2, 1989, something unheard-of and totally unexpected occurred. The Hungarians dismantled the barriers along the border.
The message was understood by all as word spread around the world. The Iron Curtain had come to an end, replaced by a conventional national border.
By opening its border, Hungary — which today clamors loudly for borders, walls and barbed wire — made it possible for anyone fleeing the German Democratic Republic to make their way to the West, following a route that went from Budapest through Austria to Munich. The walls fell under the steady onslaught of those dissatisfied with the material catastrophe of the socialist countries.
That began the chain of events leading to German unity and the great era of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Christian Democratic Union leader who only a short time before had been targeted for overthrow by the upper echelon of his party. For him, reunification was an act of political will, a fulfillment of a vision he scarcely believed in any longer. The economy was forced to adapt to the grand political scheme, whatever the cost.
A quarter of a century later, younger economists are amazed that a unity dictated by politics achieved even economic success, albeit much later than Mr. Kohl had imagined.
Almost a generation after the official start of German Reunification on October 3, 1990, a nation that is both economically and politically strong has emerged and is slowly but surely assuming a leadership role in the European Union. The East did not turn into a “Southern Italy without the Mafia,” as former Social Democratic Party of Germany Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once feared.
The equation East equals poor and West equals rich is no longer unambiguously true. Flourishing regions around Erfurt and Leipzig in the East contrast with sites of decline such as Gelsenkirchen in the West, even if economically “blooming landscapes” did not arise everywhere, as Mr. Kohl promised in 1990.
The economic power of the East continues to be a third below that of the West. Unified Germany reached its economic nadir after five years. At the time, the media spoke of the “demolition of the East” and not its reconstruction. After the euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the introduction of the German mark in summer 1990 at an exchange rate of one-to-one was a shock. Overnight, GDR industry lost its markets in Eastern Europe, while wages rose dramatically because the differences with those in the West were to disappear as quickly as possible.