Detroit's "Nazi Underground Railroad": The Max Stephan Case

The Great Escape

Max Stephan

Oblt. Hans Peter Krug

Oberleutnant Hans Peter Krug was a German POW held by the British at Camp 30 in Bowmanville, Canada, where he was taken after being shot down during a bombing run over England. Through the combined efforts of the prisoners at the camp, Krug escaped with fellow soldier Erich Boehle on April 17, 1942, dressed as a Canadian workmen and carrying forged papers smuggled into the camp by the Abwehr. Stealing a boat in Windsor, he paddled to Belle Isle and then walked to Detroit. The Abwehr had reportedly provided Krug with a list of safehouse contacts, including one Mrs. Bertelmann (who is alternately described as a pen-pal of Krug). Bertelmann introduced him to "ethnic leader" and restaurant owner Max Stephan, who gave Krug a tour of the city, beer, and a trip to a brothel. He then put Krug on a bus to Chicago, from where he traveled to San Antonio, where he was arrested by the FBI after being turned in by a hotel clerk.

Stephan got the worst of the resulting legal action. While Krug was returned to a more secure camp in Gravenhurst, from which he attempted to escape twice, and Bertelmann was interned as an enemy alien for the rest of the war, Stephan was convicted of "harbouring an alien" (at the time, there were no laws on the books for aiding an escaped POW); he was sentenced to death by hanging, the first American convicted for treason since the Whiskey Rebellion. President Franklin Roosevelt commuted Stephan's sentence to life in prison, where he died in 1952. In 1992, decades after Krug returned to life in Germany, he was quoted as saying Detroit was exciting, but that Stephan was pretty foolish.

Stories and Speculation

Regardless of whether or not he was foolish, it appears that Stephan may have been more than the bumbling fool he has often been depicted as. At his sentencing, Stephan is reported to have said "Victory will be sure. Germany will not let me hang." In addition, a lawsuit challenging the citizenship granted to August Baeker indicates that German-American Bund meetings took place at Stephan's restaurant, and that Baeker obtained a map of POW camps in Canada at Stephan's restaurant in 1941 (see items 25 and 27 in the proceedings). Given that Krug was originally brought to Stephan by Abwerh contact Bertelmann (who doesn't seem to have left many footprints), it is at least possible that Krug's escape exposed an authentic fifth column in Detroit.


Most of the information above came from Lynn Hodgson's detailed history of the case, including a great description of the actual escape plan. And once again, the Detroit Free Press had an article on the topic, but it's no longer available. Wayne State University's Virtual Motor City Collection has a number of photos of Stephan and Krug. Legal News also offered an overview of the case.

A big thanks Larry Zimmerman and Stuart Itzkowitz, who first brought this incident to Dspitzle's attention, and to Larry's late mother Tillie, a Detroit resident at the time, who filled in enough information to allow tracking down the story. It isn't quite as "sexy" a tale as it was originally remembered, but it's still pretty good.