The Famous Family Feud That Spawned Adidas and Puma

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Adidas, James Harden, Janden Smith, Puma sneakers
Adidas (left) and Puma sneakers are two of the best known on the market. The brothers that founded the shoes battled each other during World War II, even testifying against each other during the denazification panels. Doug Pensinger/D Dipasupil/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

If only Adi and Rudi Dassler had learned to get along, Germany's Gebrüder Dassler might have bested Nike as the world's top sports footwear company today. Instead, the brothers' bitter feud caused the brand they created — Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) — to split in two as Adidas and Puma, the world's second and third top sports shoe businesses.

Adolf (Adi) Dassler began making shoes in 1924 in his mother's kitchen shortly after returning home to the Bavarian village of Herzogenaurach after World War I. His business did well, and older brother Rudolph (Rudi) Dassler joined him a few years later to help. Shy Adi was the creative force and brains behind the business, while extroverted Rudi was the salesman.

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The Dassler brothers' main goal at this early stage of the company was to get their shoes on the feet of athletes. They believed if an athlete won a race while wearing their shoes, it would help authenticate their product. The chance came at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam when German distance runner Lina Radke not only won the 800-meter race in a pair of their spiked track shoes, she also set a new world record.

Gebrüder Dassler gained further acclaim at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Adi provided their shoes to athletes from several different nations. It was American Jesse Owens, who had the Olympics of his life in a pair of Dassler brothers track shoes, who became the catalyst for the company. Seven gold, five silver and five bronze medals were won by athletes in Dassler shoes during that Olympics — four gold medals by Owens alone.

But it wasn't quite the triumph it should have been because things inside the company were beginning to sour.

Dassler shoe
An Adidas archivist holds the oldest shoe model from of the company's archive, the "Track and Field Racing Shoe" by Adolf Dassler from 1925.
Nicolas Armer/Picture Alliance via Getty Image

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The Dasslers and the Nazis

While the Dassler brothers were building their shoe company, the Nazi party was trying to take control of Germany. In 1925, just when the brothers were forming Dassler, Adolf Hitler declared the reformulation of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), with himself as leader. By 1933, Hitler was appointed German chancellor and the brothers joined the Nazi party and remained members until the end of the war.

Initially, during World War II, the Dassler factory continued producing track shoes, but in 1941, the Nazis ordered it to produce 10,500 pairs of shoes a month for the regime. Things were not good at home, either. For one, the brothers and their wives all lived together, including Adi's wife who was just a teenager. Eventually much of the bad blood between Adi and Rudi began bubbling over.

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". . . His young wife tried to interfere in business matters, although she, with her 16 years, had no experience at all, and the warfare began," Rudolf Dassler wrote according to Barbara Smit's book, "Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sports."

Rudi didn't necessarily mean World War II when he said "warfare," but the war was pivotal in their feuds. Adi was initially drafted in 1940 but given a deferment because he was needed to run the factory. But Rudi was drafted in January 1943. He blamed Adi for his draft and didn't think Adi could run the company without him. He demanded Adi keep him informed about every business decision and wanted his wife, Friedl, to act as his deputy.

Adi said no, and things between the brothers worsened. While stationed at the second-largest Jewish ghetto in Poland, in April 1943, Rudi wrote to Adi:

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.

Six months later the factory was shut down as part of the Third Reich's Totaler Krieg-Kürzester Krieg (Total War-Shortest War) campaign. Dassler was forced to stop producing shoes and instead begin building the Panzerschreck, a shoulder rocket launcher used to take out Allied tanks.

Even still, Rudi tried to take control of the factory from Adi. He tried to persuade members of the Nazi party to use the factory to produce boots for soldiers instead of munitions. His plan failed. Instead he went AWOL from his post in Poland just days before the Soviets liberated it, saving the remaining 800 Jews imprisoned there. Rudi returned to Herzogenaurach but was arrested by the Gestapo.

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The Dasslers Post WWII

Gebrüder Dassler factory
The first Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik factory in Germany. Public Domain

Soon after the war ended, Rudi returned to Herzogenaurach but was quickly arrested by American troops who suspected he worked for the Sicherheitsdienst (the secret service of the Reichsführer-SS). Adi and his wife Käthe testified to the denazification panel that Rudi was part of the SS and he was imprisoned for a year, leaving Adi again to run the factory.

But Adi didn't get off scot-free. The denazification panel required that Adi not operate Dassler. Once again, Rudi saw this as his chance to regain power. He told the panel that it was Adi all along who masterminded the weapons production for the Nazis for his own profit. But the panel didn't buy it and formally granted Adi ownership of Gebrüder Dassler on Feb. 3, 1947.

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The false testimony from Rudi, the testimony from Adi, the family infighting — it all led to the irreparable rupture of the entire Dassler family and ultimately the company. By 1948 Gebrüder Dassler officially split, moving its assets and employees into one of two competing operations located on opposite sides of the Aurach River that flowed through Herzogenaurach. Adi renamed his business "Adidas," combining his first and last names. Rudi did the same, dubbing his "Ruda," although he later changed it to "Puma."

Soon, most of Herzogenaurach's citizens were employed by either Adidas or Puma, and the siblings' intense rivalry spread throughout the town. If someone worked for one company, they didn't socialize with employees of the other. Marrying across companies was strictly forbidden. Residents only shopped in the stores on the same side of the river as the factory in which they were employed.

The brothers' sister Marie sided with Adi and Käthe. Their mother Paulina sided with Rudi and Friedl. In the separation, Adi kept the factory and the family villa.

Over time, Adidas far surpassed Puma in sales, thanks to Adi's creativity and technical acumen, although Puma still did quite well. But while the two were hard at work competing against one another, they paid no attention to another shoe company — Nike — that was quietly gaining market share. Today, Nike is king of the sports shoe business, with 2017 sales of $28 billion compared to Adidas' $12.8 billion and Puma's $3.5 billion.

The brothers spoke a few times later in life but never reconciled. Both died in the 1970s and were buried at opposite ends of the local cemetery. Their feud finally ended in 2009, when employees of both companies played together in a friendly soccer match.

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Originally Published: Sep 14, 2018

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