By Brad Dison
During World War I, teenager Adolf Dassler became adept at repairing shoes in his parents’ home in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Adolf was his given name, but family and friends called him Adi. He scavenged the war-torn countryside for his supplies, and got his much-needed leather from belts, holsters, and worn-out shoes. He took and modified abandoned machine parts and created a stationary bicycle powered leather milling machine. Adi hired his first employee to pedal the bicycle so he could run the milling machine. Following World War I, Adi’s business grew as he experimented and developed stronger, but more lightweight shoes.
In 1923, Adi’s older brother, Rudolf, joined Adi in developing and manufacturing shoes. One year later, they formed Gebrüder Dassler, Sportschuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Factory). Their factory was the front room and, when not in use, the kitchen of their family home. By 1925, their shoe line included football boots which had nailed studs and track shoes with hand-forged spikes, all of which were still made in the family home. In 1927, the brothers sold enough shoes to allow them to move their operations from the cramped family home into a small factory.
Dassler Brothers shoes became popular with athletes early on. In 1928, several athletes wore Dassler shoes in the 1928 Amsterdam games. German middle distance runner Linda Radke won gold in the Amsterdam games while wearing Dassler shoes. Another German runner won gold in the 1932 Los Angeles Games while wearing Dassler shoes. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, athletes from several countries competed in Dassler shoes. American track and field star Jesse Owens won three gold medals while wearing Dassler shoes, which led to large international orders for sports shoes of different varieties.
In the early 1930s, Adi and Rudolf saw an opportunity to expand their shoe business through politics. On May 1, 1933, Adi, Rudolf, and other members of their family joined the Nazi Party. Adolph Hitler prioritized athletic teamwork and the Dassler brothers became a major supplier of shoes to the athletes. Adi became a coach in the Hitler Youth movement and supplied those young athletes with footwear. While members of the Nazi Party, Adi and Rudolf ended their letters with “Heil Hitler.”
World War II forever changed Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Factory as tension within the Dassler family grew. Adi and Rudolf and their wives and children all shared a single home, along with Adi’s parents and his siblings’ families. To protect them from being drafted into the German military, several members of the family worked at the shoe factory, which often caused friction in the family. Adi and Rudolf struggled for control of the company. In August of 1940, Adi was notified that he was being drafted into the Wehrmacht. He reported for duty in December but was released two months later as his work with the Dassler company was deemed essential. Rudolf became angry and more assertive when he learned that Adi claimed leadership of the Dassler’s shoe factory to secure his release from the Wehrmacht. While Adi was away, Marie, their sister Marie tried to convince Rudolf to hire her two sons to keep them from being drafted into the German military. Rudolf refused because he claimed there were already enough family problems within the company. Marie was devastated. Just as Marie feared, her two sons were drafted into the German army and never returned. Marie never forgave Rudolf. Ironically, in January of 1943, Rudolf was also drafted into the German military. Unlike Adi, Rudolf was unable to secure his release for military service. He blamed Adi and his connections within the Nazi party for his being drafted. In a letter to Adi, Rudolf spitefully wrote that he would not hesitate to seek the closure of the factory so that Adi would be forced to fight in the war. The Reich eventually shut down the shoe factory. Rudolf, on leave at the time, decided to take some of the leather from the factory for later use. Rudolf was angered when he learned that Adi had already removed the leather from the factory and reported Adi to his Nazi friends.
While the world celebrated the end of World War II, the Dassler brothers’ war for control of the company continued. Adi and Rudolf were arrested and tried separately for their actions within the Nazi party. The brothers testified against each other in a bid to save themselves. Rudolf was not deemed a threat and was released in July of 1946. Adi was found guilty of minor infractions and put on probation with the stipulation that he could not operate the Dassler shoe factory. Rudolf saw this as his chance to take control of the factory. Adi and Rudolf continued to make claims, some true some false, against each other. Adi appealed the decision and, in February of the following year, was granted permission to resume management of the Dassler shoe factory.
Adi and Rudolf were unable to repair their relationship, and the rift spread throughout the family. By this time, the Dassler company had grown to include two factory buildings. Some family members sided with Adi and others sided with Rudolf. Knowing that the rift between the brothers could never be repaired, Adi and Rudolf painstakingly divided the company’s assets one-by-one. Adi took the original factory building and Rudolf took the other. Employees were forced to choose which brother they would remain with. Rudolf and the members of the family who sided with him moved out of the family home. Adi and Rudolf never spoke again.
Following the separation and dissolution of the Dassler Brothers’ company, both brothers created new companies and continued to manufacture shoes and sportswear. Both of their companies grew to international success. Adi’s company is currently the second largest sportswear manufacturer in the world, second only to Nike, and Rudolf’s company is the third largest in the world. Rudolf’s company name translates to cougar in several countries. Rudolf named his company Puma. Adi’s company name was comprised of a combination of his first and last names. He called it Adidas.
1. The Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1976, p.129.
2. The Ottawa Journal, May 13, 1978, p.104.
3. Asbury Park Press, November 1, 1978, p.45.
4. The Age, September 11, 1982, p.20.
5. The Miami Herald, April 11, 1987, p.115.
6. Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1987, p.8.
7. The Daily Telegraph, June 15, 1996, p.156.