In the biblical story of Genesis, Cain was born to Adam and Eve, followed by his brother Abel. The first to be born slew his own brother, the first human to die, and Cain was cast out to wander in the land of nod, east of Eden.
According to legend, the evil King Amulius ordered the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the war god Mars drowned in the Tyber River. Instead the boys washed ashore, to be suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement. He modestly called the place “Rome”, after himself.
Two thousand years later, two brothers come into this story. The enmity between Adolf and Rudolf Dassler never rose to fratricide but it came close, a hatred for one another which lasted, beyond the grave. And you may be wearing one of their products, as you read this.
Oh. Did I tell you they were both, Nazis?
The Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach is located in the Middle Franconia region of West Germany, about 14 miles from Nuremberg. In the early 20th century, the local textile economy collapsed in the face of more industrialized competitors. Many turned to shoe-making. By 1922, the small town of 3,500 boasted some 122 cobblers. Christoph Dassler was one such, specializing in felt slippers.
Adolf “Adi” Dassler was the third son and youngest of four children born to Christoph and Paulina Dassler. An avid sportsman and athlete, Adi engaged in a variety of sporting events including track & field, futbol, skiing and ice hockey. Usually with close friend Fritz Zehlein, the son of a local blacksmith.
The “Great War” descended over Germany in 1914, and the elder Dassler boys were conscripted into the army. Not yet thirteen, Adi was apprenticed to a baker, but turned to his father instead to learn the intricate stitching of the cobbler. Adi was particularly interested in sports, and how the proper shoe could improve athletic performance.
Adi himself was drafted into the army in 1918, five months before his 18th birthday.
Adi returned to what he knew after the war, repairing shoes while starting a business of his own. The German economy lay in ruins. Dassler was forced to scavenge war materials, to form his designs. Leather from bread pouches. Canvas from uniforms. And always the need to improvise, jury rigging available machinery in the absence of electricity.
Rudolf Dassler trained to become a police officer, but left to join his brother’s company, forming the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe company, in 1924. Dassler Brothers may have been the first to use metal spikes, fashioned by Adi’s old buddy, Fritz Zehlein.
The following year, the company was making leather Fußballschuhe with nailed studs and track shoes with hand-made spikes.
Former Olympian and coach of the German Olympic track & field team Josef Waitzer took an interest in the work, becoming a friend and consultant. Dassler brothers shoes were used in international competitions as early as the 1928 games in Amsterdam and the Los Angeles games, of 1932.
With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, it was hard not to see the economic self-interest, in politics. The Dassler brothers – Adi, Rudi and Fritz joined the party on May 1.
For the family business, the big break came in 1936, when American Olympian Jesse Owens agreed to compete in Dassler Brothers shoes. This American athlete of African ancestry went on to win four gold medals, a humiliating defeat for Hitler’s Aryan “master race”, but the sporting world soon beat a path to Adi’s door.
Compared with his brothers, Rudi seems to have been the more ardent Nazi. Adi confined himself to coaching Hitler Youth teams, while Rudi was off at rallies and political meetings. It was much of what led to their parting of the ways.
Germany once again found itself at war and Adi switched over to producing army boots. Christoph and Paulina lived with their two grown sons and their wives, and five grandchildren. Käthe (Martz) Dassler, Adi’s wife, had frequent run-ins with her mother and father-in-law, and seems to have had a relationship of mutual detestation with Rudi’s wife, Friedl.
Family fault lines were already irreparable in 1943, when Adi and Käthe climbed into a bomb shelter, already occupied by his brother and his family. Adi commented “The dirty bastards are back again,” referring to Allied war planes overhead. Rudi was convinced his brother was talking about him.
Rudolf blamed his brother and his “Nazi friends” when he was called up to fight the Russians, in the east. Adi himself was drafted but dismissed, when his civilian services were deemed indispensable to the war effort.
Stationed in Tuschin that April, Rudi wrote to his brother: “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.”
The Soviet Red Army overran Tuschin on January 19, 1945, decimating Dassler’s unit. Rudi fled to Herzogenaurach where a doctor certified him as militarily “incapable”, due to a frozen foot.
Allied “de-nazification” efforts after the war led to a blizzard of recriminations between the two brothers, and the end of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory. These two hated each other.
Adi Dassler’s new company would be known as Adidas. Rudi tried to copy the idea and called his new company “Ruda”, but it didn’t have the same ring. He settled on “Puma”.
Herzogenaurach became a two-factory town, a German Hatfield & McCoys. The rivalry extended to the two football clubs in town, ASV Herzogenaurach and 1FC Herzogenaurach. There were Adidas stores, and Puma stores. Adidas restaurants, and Puma restaurants. And don’t even think about being served if you had the wrong shoes on your feet. The place was so saturated with the hate these two brothers felt for each other, it came to be the “Town of Bent Necks“. For sixty years, people ignored or talked with each other, based on whose side they were on.
The Dassler brothers never reconciled. They are buried in the same cemetery, as far away from each other as it is possible to be. The families are now out of the business, and so is the antagonism that held out for all those years. So remember that familiar cat or those famous three stripes, next time you lace up. You just might be wearing a piece of history.