by Nickii Wantakan Arcado
This is the story of Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, and how a comment over the crisis of World War II led to the creation of two of the world’s largest and most popular sport apparel brands in the world.
When we think of family feuds, we think of brother-sister bickering, friendly cooking competitions between cousins and in-laws, political arguments over the dinner table, or even who’s turn it is to pay the check. Rarely does one imagine a family feud that has the power to influence market capitals, transform the sports world, and divide communities.
In the small town of Herzogenaurach, Germany in the 1920s, Adolf “Adi” Dassler and Rudolf “Rudi” Dassler founded the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company (Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik in German). Similar to any start-up story you would hear from Silicon Valley or San Francisco, the brother’s base of operation was one of convenience, comfort, and cost-effectiveness; their mother’s laundry room. The brothers effective collaboration relied played to each other’s strengths. Adi, the youngest, was the creative one, in charge of designing and constructing the shoes. Rudi, the more charismatic older brother, took care of marketing and sales. To the small town of Herzogenaurach, they were an unstoppable force.
When the National Socialist German Workers’ party gained power in 1933, Adi and Rudi were faced with both a political and business dilemma; accept membership to the Nazi party to have the Dassler shoe company remain in business and protect the job security of 100 German workers or refuse, and face the wrath of modern artillery. (This decision, evidently, led the Dassler shoe company to be the only active athletic foot company to exist during the war). Still motivated by his love of sports and athleticism, Adi was inactive and disinterested in the party and its policies and in 1936 made a decision that was arguably, one of the most controversial, high points of the company’s history; providing his running shoes to African American Athlete Jesse Owens.
While Hitler meant to have the Olympic event exemplify the superiority of the Aryan race, Owen’s record breaking performances, victory as a Black athlete on a worldwide stage, and sponsorship from a German-based company, challenged the feuer’s power and racial allegations. Coupled with the fact that the 1936 Olympics was one of the first widely televised shows in the world, Owen’s four gold medal victories in Dassler shoes introduced the company to the international stage. Unfortunately, in 1948, after 28 years of the familial partnership, the brothers split the company in two, creating Adidas and Puma.
There are many speculations on the reasoning behind the split. Some have claimed that the separation was due to the rivalry and distaste the brother’s wives had for each other. Others have mentioned that their politics, visions about the future of the company, and business development plans were always at odds, with Adi wishing to prioritize shoe development while Rudi was focused more on the company’s profitability. However, the most widely accepted incident cited by sneaker historians and researchers alike is an event that took place during the bombing of Herzogenaurach. When Adi and his wife climbed into the house’s bomb shelter that was already occupied by Rudi and his wife, Adi made a comment under his breath about the Allied Air Force, quoting “The dirty bastards are at it again”. Rudi, however, interpreted his brother’s comment to be about him and his family. By the end of the war, the arguments and disagreements escalated and in the end, the company assets were split. Rudi chose to build his new company, then named ‘Ruda’, across the Aurach river away from his brother. He would later rename his company to ‘Puma’, attempting to make his brand sound more athletically appealing.
The brother’s feud and newly founded shoe empires also impacted Herzogenaurach’s economy. Since the Dassler shoe company was the main hub of employment in the vicinity, the brother’s split caused everyone within the town to choose to work for one company or the other. Similar to a real life Romeo and Juliet story—or a college football rivalry, depending on how you choose to look at it--the workers were eventually pulled into the brother’s feud. Local business began turning away customers from rival companies, workers were disallowed to communicate, date, or marry anyone from the opposing side, and levels of interactions were determined by what types of shoes one chose to wear.
Other events involving the company's relationship to World War II are also worth noting. Multiple incidents of bickering between Rudi and Adi persisted before the bomb shelter pandemonium. When Rudi was drafted in 1943, Rudi claimed it was Adi who had arranged for him to be away from the factory so that he would take over the company in Rudi’s absence. In another instance, Rudi abandoned his post on the front lines, worried that his brother was making uninformed business decisions. This lead to his arrest and detention later one (which some have claimed, was Adi’s doing). Another remarkable event involved Adi’s wife Käthe, who was credited with saving the company from an Allied bombing. When U.S. troops arrived in Herzogenaurach ready to destroy the Dassler facility, Käthe argued to spare the company as its main purpose was to produce sports shoes. Well aware of their athlete’s Olympic victory in the past and Dassler’s growing popularity in the U.S., the troops decided against bombing and mobilized in the family’s house instead.
While the brother’s feud existing to this day—as they are buried at opposite sides of the the Herzogenaurach cemetery—not the same could be said their employees. After six decades of pettiness and shoe politics, a friendly soccer match was organized by employees of Puma and Adidas in 2009. While the past feud might have distracted the two companies from the eventual rise of the American-run Nike brand in the sports industry, the story of the Dassler brothers is one of the many examples of entrepreneurial accomplishments persisting throughout the dark and depressing atmosphere that was World War II.