“Historically new realities have often appeared in times of crisis.”

This interview appeared in the print edition of profil in German on April 27 2020.

You can download it in German here:


Anne Applebaum speaks about the consequences of the Corona pandemic for democracy, the lure of Authoritarianism and the nice side effects of a long lockdown.


The historian and journalist Anne Applebaum won a Pulitzer Price in 2004 for her book “Gulag”, in which she described the Soviet concentration camp system. Among her other well received historical studies are “Iran Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (2012) and “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine” (2017). A former editor of the Economist and the Spectator she was a member of the editorial board of the Washington Post and is now a staff writer for The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/when-disease-comes-leaders-grab-more-power/608560/ 


Her new book “The Twilight of Democracy: the seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” will be published in July. Applebaum investigates the men behind contemporary authoritarian movements: Journalists, chief ideologues, spin doctors and propagandists. Currently Applebaum is in Coronavirus lockdown in Poland with her husband Radek Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister.


Profil: The corona-pandemic is not only a medical crisis, but also one of democracy. Might democracy be the most regrettable victim of the Coronavirus?

Applebaum: When people feel fear they tend to follow their leaders. This is what happened now at the beginning of the pandemic. Governments introduced measures, which we would have never let them get away with in normal times. We were willing to let this happen because we understood it was in exchange for our safety. We have seen a couple of governments overdo that and use this moment for political reasons to garner more power or to try to stay in power. A lot depends on what happens further along the road. Don’t forget there might be in some weeks and months from now a counter-reaction because people will question and resent the lockdown. They will object to it and demand more freedom.


Profil: Your new book “The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” will be published in July. Will the Lure of the strongmen get stronger through the Coronavirus crisis?

Applebaum: Yes, the lure of authoritarianism will be stronger particularly in places where the state is perceived as failed. Poland, Italy, Spain, US maybe? In the Balkans also, maybe outside of Europe: India.


Profil: Does the virus hit democracies particularly badly?

Applebaum: We should never forget: Democracy is always fragile. But funnily enough I don’t think the real division is between democracy and autocracy in terms of this virus. The division has to do with countries that have competent and effective bureaucracies and those that don’t. Some democracies are performing phantastically well like Taiwan or South Korea. They have raucious, angry democratic debates all the time and yet they have been very effective in controlling the virus. If you look at autocracies you will see some that are doing well like Singapure and others where there is going to be total chaos like maybe Russia. Where people trust their governments and are willing to listen to their governments and follow rules, it will work. And if the government in turn is effective and organized – those are the places that are doing well.


Profil: We always thought that democracy is the only system which offers both: governments earn the trust of their voters by being efficient and organized.

Applebaum: We assumed since the Second World War that democracy was the system that would prevail. Now we see there are challenges from within democratic states. And from outside democracies. And surprises like a virus that requires a massive assertion of state effort. I worry that some of our democracies will turn out not to be effective.


Profil: Which ones in the West are you thinking of?

Applebaum: It is too early to say who is doing well in Europe. You have to tell me about Austria, but it looks like Germany is doing well. Because of trust in the system, proper preparation, effective organisation of the state. Nobody wants to hear from the AfD right now and everyone listens to Merkel and the scientists next to her.


Profil: The Coronavirus does not only have negative effects then?

Applebaum: That’s right. People feel right now that we cannot afford those political games in the face of this worldwide pandemic. Where mainstream parties, public broadcasting and national healthsystems function well, these institutions will be strenghened after the crisis.


Profil: Could the EU have reacted better in this crisis?

Applebaum: The EU is explicitly not responsible for health care. The criticism initially was unfair because the EU hasn’t got any tools for this. We have never given it any tools. The challenge for the EU is how it behaves in the next few months in the areas where it does have tools and this is in the economic crisis. Too early to assess what they have done, but the test for the Euro-zone is whether the EU can bridge the divisions. Not only the North versus South divide. But more broadly whether the EU can come up with a response for everyone in this unusal economic crisis.


Profil: So far especially the North in the EU has been very reluctant to help the South to share the debt burden?

Applebaum: The experience of everyone being in lockdown equally might create a new sense of unity and the need for a general response to an international crisis like this. The process of going back to normal will take a year or two. How will we get back to international trade and borders etc will define the future of the EU. I hope the experience helps create a common European culture. The Euro-zone cannot go back to normal without a lot of cooperation. I understand why sharing debt might not be the right answer for everyone, but there might be other answers.


Profil: People in crisis usually don't start being more moderate, multinational and nice, but more xenophobic and radical and isolationalist, don’t you think?

Applebaum: Yes, and if the EU or the US are not doing enough, we have other countries seeking to step into the breach. China has made a lot of effort to show itself as an effective power that can offer help. It’s better than Europe? We will see. China is certainly doing better than the United States to show with superficial evidence that that it is helping, particularly in Italy. People will wonder: US is a disaster, China seems to be offering help, maybe Western alliance is not as effective – a lot depends how these states and institutions behave in the next months.


Profil: Who will win from the Coronacrisis? Strongmen or strong states?

Applebaum: Where there is trust, it helps in crisis. We are still many months out from final conclusion. We have not had the economic collapse. We will see how people and institutions perform. Politics might change after this depending on the performance of politicians and institutions.


Profil: The strongman cult affects former communist countries as well as the heart of Western capitalism – the United States. What is the reason that so many people in those 2 different systems come to the same conclusion, that democracy is not so important to them?

Applebaum: It is human. It is a great mistake to assume that this problem of democracy is some kind of East European problem that has to do with former communist countries. It is absolutely not. Yes, Poland and Hungary have authoritarian political parties. But we all do. You have the Freedom Party in Austria.


Profil: In Austria we have a lively debate about measures the government took during the Coronacrisis with concerns over civil rights. Sebastian Kurz is close to 50 percent voter approval, is now speaking about “The new normal” when it comes to restrictions of the freedom of individuals to stay in place.

Applebaum: I don't know what Kurz meant by that particular phrase but there is a danger. One of the key jobs for journalism is to keep a careful eye on whoever has power during this crisis and make sure that they give it up when the crisis is over. Historically new realities have often appeared in times of crisis. There have always been measures that have been taken in times of crisis and that remained in place afterwards. The famous one is the income tax in the United States that was brought in as an emergency measure in World War One and it just stayed. Lots of examples throught history. During a syphilis plague in London in the 19th century the plague lead to regulation and inspection of brothels. That remained because it made sense. We need to find the key for solutions how we reform political systems in order to defuse the fascination of the authoritarian.


Profil: In some countries the oppositie seems to happen. Does Corona help the Polish government on its road to installing an autocracy?

Applebaum: We have a strange situation in Poland. The government still wants to hold the presidential elections on May 10th. But it is unthinkable to actually have elections under these circumstances. The local governments, who usually organize them, refuse to do it. Postal vote is timpossible to organize on such short notice. According to opinion polls 70 to 80 percent say the do not want to have elections now. The government could postpone the elections, this is possible according to the constitution. But she does not want to do that because the government fears that they might lose. In three or four months the economic crisis might already hit them. Those who rule Poland do what is good for them not what is good for the country. They want to stay in power.


Profil: Where is Poland on Trust?

Applebaum: Poland is low on trust. It is a small and homogenious country so there is a lot of social solidarity. There is a certain trust in experts. People are beginning to doubt the government. There is not enough testing in Poland. Many people believe that the government does not want the real numbers because they could be too high because of the elections. The politiziation has made people lose trust in the government and in the system. Poland is probably quite similar to Hungary in this respect.


Profil: The difference is maybe that Hungary did declare a state of emergency and Victor Orban can now rule by decree as long as he wants. Is this a decisive difference to Poland?

Applebaum: Poland and Hungary are very different cases. In Poland the government is afraid to loose the elections whereas in Hungary Orban is not. Hungary is a strange case for our Corona-debate, because Hungary was already before in a situation where Victor Orban could already do what he wanted. He dismantled parliament, courts and media as effective control institutions before. There are no checks and balances in normal times, so this now is only a symbolic shift. The dictatorship is already there. Orban has now created a distraction from the fact that the health system in Hungary is very poor, so he created a political crisis to blame the opposition as if they were pro-virus – “they don't want us to take tough measures because they want the virus to win”. It is a political game more than anything else.


Profil: But it can also happen that the strong state beats the strongmen? US and UK politics could change because these governments are not very successful in battling the virus?

Applebaum: It could be a real gamechanger. For some things we just need a strong state. UK and US are the two countries where you had the greatest de-funding of health care and de-centralisation. In the US we never had national heath care and in the UK they took a lot of money out of it. If Jo Biden wins we will have national health care in place in the US. On of the lessons of this crisis will be that health care affects everybody. You might be wealthy enough to have heathcare but if your bus driver or child’s teacher does not have it, you will be affected by it. In Britain there is almost the opposite happening now there is almost a cult around the NHS now.


Profil: What has happened?

Applebaum: Boris Johnson made it a huge point in his message when he came out of hospital to thank NHS worker Luis from Portugal. All the games that were played with the far-right and conspiracy theories have gone right out of the window. A lot of the language of Boris Johnson’s government at the beginning in December: Downgrading the BBC, ministers wanted to control immigration, push experts to the side - a lot of populist language in short. This has changed completely. The BBC is at the center of attention. The public health care system NHS is at the core of public interest with all its immigrant workers at the front line.


Profil: At the same time the government is being critized severly now for being too slow to react to the crisis – not only by the stately BBC but by right wing papers like the Daily Telegraph who were full of praise for Boris Johnson during the Brexit process.

Applebaum: Its clear that in February for a number of reasons the British were slow to move because of the scientific advice they were given. British nationalists have this instinct to say: We don't do what everybody else is doing. This sense of being different was expressed by Boris Johnson in a speech when he said: British people will not accept being locked down. It turned out not to be true. Johnson himself was distracted, his girlfirend is pregnant, he is in the middle of a divorce. He is not keen on managing a crisis even in the best of times. Three months from now as people become unemployed you might have a backlash against him. I think we can just not predict what will happen.


Profil: Are you giving some answers in your upcoming book?

Applebaum: The book will also bring in some aspects of the Coronacrisis. But my book is not about authoritarian leaders and voters but about the people behind it and who work for them. The journalists and chief ideologues and propagandists and spindoctors and thinkers.


Profil: Like who?

Applebaum: I asked myself: Who are the intellectuals of the far right? Who creates their stories? They are a FOX news anchor or a Polish TV anchor. Some of the original thinkers behind Brexit for example appear, too. Roger Scruton who became very despaired about England and his believe that England is dying. That thinking was one of the underlying drivers of Brexit.


Profil: Do the authoritarian leaders believe in their own politics and spins?

Applebaum: Depends from leader to leader. Victor Orban is totally cynical. I don't think he believes that George Soros is evil. Trump is totally cynical, I don’t think he believes anything he says. But a lot of their voters are cynical, too. They think: I know they are lying but this one lies more honestly. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Polish Law and Justic party, has been involved in a lot of scandals. One in particular where he got secret ownership of a property. Why did this not affect his voters? Because people thought: At least they will see to it that the welfare will be distributed.


Profil: You famously wrote a cookbook about the Polish kitchen, are you developing part 2 while in lockdown?

Applebaum: Not only are we in Poland now but also on the countryside. Polish supermarkets have been transformed in recent years because they stocked a lot of goods from all over the world. That is gone now. Now we have to cook local vegetables again. So it is cabbage and potatoes. Carrots and parsnips. I cooked a Russian Stschi yesterday. But the good news it: If the lockdown lasts long enough, our own summer vegetables will be ready soon.


Interview: Martin Staudinger, Tessa Szyszkowitz