ANKLAM, Germany — Because this is Germany, where militarism is taboo, many Scouts in this far-northeastern region forsake a traditional pledge. But they are on the front lines of a battle for the hearts and minds of young people — in a part of the country where the contest over nationalism and democracy still rages.
Their leader is Michael Steiger, who heads a Scouting division in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a federal state deep in the former communist east. His life’s work, inserting politics into Scouting, is what landed President Trump in hot water last month, when the Boy Scouts of America apologized after the president turned an address at the organization’s National Scout Jamboree into a political diatribe, gloating about his electoral victory and lashing out at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Steiger, a heavyset man with a bald head and bushy eyebrows, said it was “a ridiculous display.” But the 51-year-old makes no apologies for infusing traditional Scout activity — canoeing and pitching tents — with politics, particularly as the stakes rise before Germans go to the polls next month. He organizes meetings between young people and nearby politicians and holds mock votes before elections.
His message is different from Trump’s. He presses Scouts to question nationalism and defend human rights.
“Through Scouting, they learn they have choices and freedom,” he said. “I hope they choose democratic values.”
Young people occupy a fraught position in German politics, particularly in the east, where the experience with communist youth organizations is so recent, said Catherine J. Plum, a German historian and the author of “Antifascism After Hitler: East German Youth and Socialist Memory, 1949-1989.” Still present, too, is the memory of the Hitler Youth, a paramilitary organization that molded young people to follow the Nazi leader.
“Because of our bad history, we try to avoid any connection with military symbols,” said Marcus Klapdor, international commissioner of Germany’s Catholic Scout association, the largest national federation, which counts about 95,000 members. He estimated there were more than 200,000 German Scouts overall, a minuscule number by American standards. “Unlike in America, we don’t have that much attention on individual leadership and strength.”
In Germany, politics doesn’t just mark local Scouting activity. Klapdor’s national association released a brochure in June that said its values were incompatible with those of the far-right Alternative for Germany, AfD, declaring, “AfD — For us no alternative!”
Compared with the overwrought state of American politics, the German debate is staid. The center-right chancellor, Angela Merkel, appears to be sailing toward a fourth term, shrugging off the left and far right. But Steiger worries that Trump’s presidency speaks to broader tensions still simmering in Germany.
“It’s not just Trump. We’re in a more comfortable position now, but a year ago, right-wing parties seemed as popular across Germany as they were in this area,” said Steiger, pushing open the double doors of the Demokratiebahnhof, the “Democracy station,” a civic center he helped establish in the central transit hub of the hardscrabble town of Anklam.
A stronghold of the far right, Anklam has among the highest unemployment rates in the country. It has lost about a quarter of its population since the fall of the Berlin Wall and stands as a counterpoint to the image of Germany as a unified, affluent society; for parts of the former socialist state, the transition to capitalism has been touch and go.
“There’s a lot in the local powder barrel that we can’t get a lid on,” the city’s mayor, Michael Galander, told the German daily Die Tageszeitung last year. The refugee crisis, he said, brought dissatisfaction to the surface.
Steps from the train station, festooned with a rainbow flag and a sign declaring, “Fascism is not an opinion but a crime,” sits the offices of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, a faction even further to the right than the anti-immigrant AfD, which captured 26 percent of Anklam’s vote in state elections last year.
The prominence of right-wing parties conflicts with Steiger’s efforts. Last year, his car was torched. This June, a molotov cocktail landed in the station when Scouts were sleeping inside. Police traced the attack to two teenagers. As a form of reparations, the city stopped asking for rent from the democracy station, which was founded in 2014.
During the school year, the center teems with people ages 10 to 25, Steiger said. They participate in printing workshops and hold discussions about human rights and anti-racism.
Many refugees use the space, he said, adding with a grin, “sometimes I come in and find them playing with Nazi kids.”
The center is unique, the mayor said in an interview, in not shutting its doors to “youngsters from the right side of the spectrum.”
Steiger relishes the juxtaposition.
“We make the abstract issues personal for the youngsters, and this is also where the trips come in,” Steiger said. “All over the world, we encounter people who help us, who bring us into their homes and give us food. It’s a lesson about understanding and hospitality.”
Born in Hamburg in 1966, Steiger got his Scouting start in the green valleys of Ireland, where he went on his first trip as a 10-year-old. His mother was a hairdresser; his father sold office supplies.
By age 15, Steiger was planning his own trips. He finished high school in Hamburg and then learned how to build houses, stoves and fireplaces.
“That was my profession,” he said. But the role he cherished was that of chief of Scouts in Hamburg. After the wall came down, an opportunity arose to develop youth groups in eastern Germany. He moved 165 miles east to Greifswald, at a moment when most people were flocking west.
“My parents thought I would stay in eastern Germany for two years and then come back,” he said.
Instead, he decided to focus on Greifswald, where he still lives, and nearby towns, such as Anklam. About a decade ago, he built up a young people’s party and got an 18-year-old elected to local office.
Steiger’s ideal, he said, would be for every citizen to spend several years working in politics. “I think politics has to open up a bit,” he said.
Still, he knows there will be setbacks. Several years ago, one of his own, a 14-year-old who had been on Scouting trips, joined a neo-Nazi demonstration.
“The Scouts did a silent vigil and then, suddenly, we saw our guy marching with the Nazis,” Steiger recalled. The lesson, he said, is that democratic training should begin earlier, because rival forces are already at work on young minds.
Two boys about that age sat outside the train station on a recent weekday.
“We haven’t covered democracy in school yet,” said Julian Beck, 15. “My dad says it’s a nice idea, but too much democracy is also not good.”