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The story of Adidas and Puma

Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, the founders of Adidas and Puma (Photo: kulker.hu)
Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, the founders of Adidas and Puma (Photo: kulker.hu)

What is the connection between the sprinting shoes Jesse Owens wore at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and the Panzerschreck, the much-dreaded German anti-tank rocket launcher? Oddly enough they were manufactured by the same German company, the predecessor of today’s footwear giants Adidas and Puma, namely the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory.
 
The two main characters behind this story were brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler from Herzogenaurach in Bavaria, close to Nuremberg. The town had a military airfield from the 1930s but the pilots had to train in civilian clothes in order to avoid suspicion that they are violating the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty after World War I, which limited the size of the German armed forces. The airfield was also used by planes that did fly-overs over Nuremberg during the annual Nazi party rallies.

Herzogenaurach on the map (Photo: Google)
Herzogenaurach on the map (Photo: Google)
The main driving force of the company was the younger brother, Adolf, nicknamed Adi by his family. He was interested in athletics and in improving his equipment. After his return from World War I, he saw that his mother’s laundry business went bankrupt due to the post-war economic crisis, and decided to start his own small footwear workshop in his mother’s laundry. A couple of years later, he was joined by his brother, Rudolf, in founding their shoe-making business Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik ("Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory") in 1924. This was not an easy business, sometimes they had to generate power with the help of a stationary bicycle.
The Dassler shoe factory in 1928 (Photo: Public domain)
The Dassler shoe factory in 1928 (Photo: Public domain)

They successfully persuaded famous German athletes to wear and promote their new shoes using innovative technologies like spikes or interchangeable studs. Their already successful business was boosted due to two events. Firstly, when Hitler seized power in 1933, the brothers joined the Nazi Party and started to supply the Nazi youth organization the Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”) with shoes. Sports and physical culture played an important part in the Nazi ideology as a means of building the self-confidence and strength of the Aryan race. It is difficult to tell now whether the Dassler brothers joined them only because of economic interest or because of believing in the ideology. The second reason for the sky-rocketing of the Dassler company was the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where they managed to convince American athlete, Jesse Owens to wear their shoes (Read our earlier article - The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin). He did so and won four gold medals. This success opened up a myriad of opportunities on the international market for the Dasslers.

Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, wearing the distinctive Dassler shoes (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, wearing the distinctive Dassler shoes (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

At the same time, the everyday management of the company started to get poisoned by internal tensions since the family members were also involved in the daily work of the factory. According to Rudolf’s later statements, the rising tensions were due to his brother’s wife, Käthe who, in Rudolf’s opinion, interfered too much with business matters. Käthe had a prominent managerial role in the company later and had been Adolf’s main informal adviser. She was known as a kind, communicative person who could easily convince the partners of the company, oftentimes with the help of her secret weapon: her delicious home-made plum pie. Rudolf’s wife, Friedl had a different personality, which led to further tensions in the growing Dassler family. The fact that the whole family lived in the same large house did not help either.

Adolf and Käthe during their honeymoon (Photo: www.adidassler.org)
Adolf and Käthe during their honeymoon (Photo: www.adidassler.org)
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With the outbreak of the Second World War, business got more difficult for the brothers. The factory was forced to produce military gear in addition to their sports shoes. Even the names of their footwear had to follow the spirit of the war effort. For instance, their football shoes were called "Kampf" (“fight”) and "Blitz” (“lightning”). Due to scarce resources and work shortage, Adolf accepted to use Soviet prisoners of war as forced laborers in the factory.
 
On top of that, Adolf was conscripted into the German armed forces in 1940 but he was soon relieved of duty since he was declared essential in running the family business. The afore-mentioned tension within the family because of the involvement of family members in the business was just further exacerbated by the war. For instance, Rudolf did not allow the employment of the two sons of their sister, Marie. Since the factory had a special status, Marie wanted to get them employed there as this could have been one of the few opportunities to avoid being sent to the front. Eventually, both sons were killed on the frontlines, for which Marie never forgave Rudolf. Rudolf was drafted later in 1943, he blamed Adolf for this, who he accused of wanting to become the sole leader of the family business. Rudolf was stationed in Tuschin (or Tuszyn), Poland. He wrote a letter to Adolf from there saying: "I will not hesitate to seek the closure of the factory so that you be forced to take up an occupation that will allow you to play the leader and, as a first-class sportsman, to carry a gun."
 
As the war progressed and Germany had to fight on more fronts, its economy was converted to total war, with private companies changing to produce military equipment. Some of the most coveted German brands like Hugo Boss, BMW and Lufthansa contributed to the German war effort. The Dassler factory was no exception, they were tasked to produce Panzerschreck (“Tank Terror” or Raketenpanzerbüsche 43) infantry 88mm anti-tank weapons. The American bazooka, captured on the Eastern Front and in Tunisia by the Germans, served as a model for this weapon. This was the heavier version of the single-use Panzerfaust, but this could be used again and again when reloaded. This shoulder-launched recoilless weapon proved to be very effective and Allied tankers learned to fear it. Its effective range was about 500 feet / 150 meters and could penetrate an armor of 8.25 inches / 210 mm. Altogether around 300,000 Panzerschrecks were built during the war between 1943-45. In the name of total war, the German workers and foreign forced laborers of the factory started to make parts of the feared weapon. After a quick training, shoe seamstresses were made to weld sights.

An American soldier with a German Panzerschreck and an American bazooka (Photo: www.libredd.it)
An American soldier with a German Panzerschreck and an American bazooka (Photo: www.libredd.it)

Shortly before his unit in Tuschin was overran by the Soviet steamroller in early 1945, Rudolf fled his unit and returned to their hometown to prevent his brother from taking over the factory completely. It remains unclear what he did until April when he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Nuremberg until early May.
 
When the American forces arrived at Herzogenaurach in April 1945, the U.S. Third Army seized the military airfield (it was returned to the German government only in 1992), and they also planned to demolish the factory but the family managed to convince them that is was just a shoe factory. A lucky element here was that many G.I.s remembered the Dassler shoes of Jesse Owens from the Berlin Olympics and eventually they decided to keep the factory unharmed. Later, many of them became customers of the company. When the occupying forces started the denazification process, both brothers were held accountable for what they did during the reign of the Nazis. In July 1945, Rudolf was arrested by the American authorities and was questioned about his alleged role in the SS and the secret service (“Sicherheitsdienst”). He denied any form of voluntary cooperation with the Nazis and was released after a year when it became obvious that he did not pose a security threat. Rudolf was convinced that Adolf was behind his arrest.
 
Adolf also had to answer to the questions of the investigators. First, he was declared a close Nazi collaborator who profited from the cooperation with them, which meant that he could have been imprisoned for years. This endangered his leadership of the company and threatened with Rudolf taking over. Eventually, he and his wife, with the help of local witnesses from their hometown, managed to convince the investigators that his collaboration wasn’t as serious as claimed by them. In February 1947, he was allowed to return to the helm of the company without limitations and external supervision.

A famous picture symbolizing the denazification through the replacement of street names (Photo: NARA)
A famous picture symbolizing the denazification through the replacement of street names (Photo: NARA)

Thus, the Dassler brothers managed to preserve their company and start off once again by selling shoes. Still, they faced similar problems they did after WWI. The lack of supplies was addressed with the help of American soldiers housed in the family’s home. For instance, they offered them superfluous war materiel (canvas from tents, etc.) that could temporarily replace leather. However, the rift between the two brothers and their family members eventually widened and led to the irreversible split of their business and their family in 1948. Rudolf and his family moved to the other side of the river Aurach separating the two main parts of the town and took over the second Dassler factory. The two brothers never spoke to each other again. 

Late photos of Adolf and Rudolf Dassler (Photo: www.vous.hu)
Late photos of Adolf and Rudolf Dassler (Photo: www.vous.hu)

Adolf Dassler named his company Adidas, using his nickname and his last name (Adi-Das), which is often erroneously referred to as the abbreviation of “All Day I Dream About Sport”. Rudolf Dassler also wanted to use the two initials of his full name (Ru-Da) but he eventually decided to call his company Puma. During the separation of the enterprise, the employees were offered to chose which company they wanted to continue with. Even the town's two football clubs were divided by the Adidas-Puma split. Both enterprises became very successful and featured in most major sports events with their products showcasing the West German economic miracle after WWII. Adidas and Puma have been rivals ever since and continue to compete strongly on the global market, although none of the two companies are in the hands of the Dassler family anymore. Rudolf Dassler died in 1974 of lung cancer, followed by Adolf in 1978 when he passed away from heart failure. They are buried in the same cemetery far away from each other. Both companies' headquarters are still in Herzogenaurach on the two opposing sides of the Aurach River. The employees of Adidas and Puma played a friendly soccer match with mixed teams in 2009 to symbolically bury the hatchet after decades of toxic rivalry.

The symbolic friendly match between the two major brands (Photo: Reuters/Michaela Rehle)
The symbolic friendly match between the two major brands (Photo: Reuters/Michaela Rehle)
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