A Family Feud: The Dassler Brother's Story

by Bernard Frei on April 15, 2019

 

Sibling rivalries have been a part of every family culture since the story of Cain and Abel. The constant competition of wanting to out-perform or beat your sibling is a feeling that is almost second nature. Today’s sports world has many famous sibling rivalries, such as Venus and Serena Williams and John and Jim Harbaugh, but they pale in comparison to a sporting rivalry that is almost one hundred years old. The Dassler brothers' story is a family feud of Biblical proportion that stems all the way back to the 1920's and has resulted in the formation of two of the largest sports manufacturing companies in the world. 

Early Life and the Dassler Brother’s Shoe Company

an old brick building

Rudolf Dassler was born on March 26th, 1898 in the small German town of Herzogenaurach.  Two years later his younger brother Adolf Dassler was born on November 3rd, 1900.  Rudolf being the older brother was more extroverted and outgoing, while Adolf was the more quiet, thoughtful, and inventive one. In 1913 Adolf was apprenticed by a baker and learned the useful skills needed to make a living, but he knew this trade wasn’t for him.  He finished his apprenticeship and decided to take after his father and learn the skills of a cobbler. As older brother Rudolf was shipped off to war in 1914, Adi began on his endeavor to create his own shoe company. 

His passion was for sports and he pondered the idea of creating sporting shoes that would enhance an athlete’s performance. He began making shoes out of the back of his mother’s laundry room from used army debris he found lying around. Rudolf would return from war and pursue a career as a policeman, but he eventually decided that wasn’t for him.  In 1923, Rudolf joined Adi in his shoe manufacturing business and together they started Gebrüder Dassler, Sportschuhfabrik(The Dassler Brother’s Sports Shoe Factory).

Introduction Into The Sports World

What made Adi and Rudolf successful was Adi’s innovation of the spiked shoe. His vision was to forge a shoe with spikes to give the athletes better performance. This vision caught the eye of the German Olympic track and field coach, Josef Waitzer, who became a close friend of the Dassler brothers.  Josef gave them their introduction into the sports world by giving Adi access to the German athletes.  In 1928, a pair of Dassler track shoes was worn by Lina Radke who won the Olympic gold in the 800m race for the German National team.  This gave the Dassler brothers success that catapulted them into the early 1930's and the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power.  With the Nazi Party starting to form, the Dassler brothers saw this as an opportunity for business. Rudolf was the more ardent believer of the two, while Adi used his political party as a means to reach the Hitler Youth clubs. By the mid 1930's, the Dassler brothers had become a household name throughout all of Germany.

1936 Olympics

a pair of shoes

The Dassler brothers saw another opportunity with the coming of the 1936 Olympic games set to take place in Berlin, Germany.  Famous American track star Jesse Owens was the perfect ambassador to take the Dassler Shoe Company global.  Adi approached Owens and offered him a pair of Dassler track shoes to use while competing. Owens accepted the gesture and went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic games, giving Adi and Rudolf the publicity needed to catapult them into an international shoe company.

Sales spiked to nearly 200,000 pairs a year leading up to World War II and large orders for basketball, hockey, and baseball shoes began to come in.  The relationship with Jesse Owens would prove to be far more important than just the immediate success, though.  When American soldiers came through in the later years of World War II, they recognized the Dassler brothers as Jesse Owens' shoe provider and let the factory stay in function.  Many of the soldiers even became good customers themselves of Dassler brand shoes. 

World War II and The Fallout

a man with a helmet on

With the war in full swing, many factory operations were hindered or shut down. Workers were hard to come by as people were being drafted for military service.  Rudolf had become power hungry in the firm and was seeking to take control.  He denied employment to his sister Marie’s sons so that no more family members would be involved in the company.  As a result, both of Marie’s sons were drafted and killed during the war. Family tensions continued to grow as the wives of both Adi and Rudolf began to quarrel with one another. 

As the war moved on, Adi was drafted in 1940 but was soon given leave as his presence in the Dassler Shoe Company was deemed necessary.  Rudolf, who served in World War I, was drafted in 1943 and became enraged.  He viewed his brother as responsible for having him sent off to war while Adi was able to control the business all by himself. Rudolf devised a plan to escape his post in Tuschin and return to the factory.  He successfully made it back to Herzogenaurach but was eventually arrested by the Gestapo.  He would spend the rest of the war boiling with anger in prison while Adi controlled the business. 

a man standing in front of a store

At the end of the war Rudolf was released, but his time in prison was not up.  The Americans had begun the denazification process of punishing those who belonged to the Nazi party. Rudolf was first arrested for the suspicions involving his relation to the secret service of the SS. He tried to plead his case, but his brother confirmed his relation and Rudolf’s testimony was disregarded. He remained in prison for another year while Adolf controlled the business and gained more power. 

In 1946, Adi was classified as a belasteter by the denazification panel and was facing potential time in prison as well as removal from management in the shoe company. Rudolf saw this as his opportunity to seize power, so he devised statements claiming Adolf as a mastermind behind weapon production in the factory and that he was innocent and would have stopped him if he wasn’t in a prison camp.  The panel did not listen to Rudolf, and Adi appealed the decision and was found not guilty placing him again as the head of the company over Rudolf. 

The relationship of the Dassler brothers had slowly been deteriorating throughout the war, and now it had become almost unforgivable. Outraged with one another’s actions and the constant struggle to gain power, the Dassler brothers divided the company and all its assets and employees in 1948. The negotiations while separating the company would be the last time the Dassler brothers would ever speak to one another.  

Adidas vs. Puma

a person with collar shirt

Adolf retained the Dassler shoe factory and two thirds of the employees while Rudolf and his followers moved south of the Aurach river and started their own shoe fctory.  Both of the brothers looked to rename their companies and differentiate themselves in the market.  Adolf struck gold when he combined his first name “Adi” and his last name “Dassler” to form “Adidas”.  Rudolf tried to copy Adi by naming his company “Ruda”, but the name was quickly changed to “Puma” to sound more athletic.  The rivalry of Adidas and Puma was born and would divide the city for decades to come. 

Herzogenaurach became known as “the town of bent necks” because everyone first checked to see which shoes you were wearing.  The rivalry became so fierce that the economy and culture of the town was drastically affected because of the family feud.  Almost everyone who lived in Herzogenaurach either worked for Adidas or Puma, and the two sides did not mix in anything.  Business became segregated and only served either Puma or Adidas people, and dating or marrying across company lines was prohibited. 

a white sign with black text

Reconciliation

The town rivalry would remain hostile as long as the Dasslers were in power.  Rudolf died in 1974 leaving the company to his son, and Adolf died in 1978 leaving the company to his son as well.  The two brothers would take the feud to their grave by being buried as far away from each other as possible in the same cemetery.  The rivalry would live on for a few more decades after their deaths but would eventually come to an end.  In 2009, Adidas and Puma participated in a friendly soccer match to signify that the animosity of the companies and the town were officially gone. 

For nearly 70 years the Dassler feud had divided the town of Herzogenaurach and ruined the relationships of its citizens.  With the hostile dispute in the rear-view mirror, the town has embraced the rivalry and happily supports both companies.  Adidas and Puma have both grown to become global sports firms recognized all over the world.  Adidas has become the largest sports manufacturer in Europe over Puma, and the second largest in the world.  The Dassler brothers impact on the sports world as we know it is under appreciated.  They brought innovation and pushed each other to produce the best sports equipment on the market. 

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