The Nazi origins of Adidas and Puma


Adidas and Puma are among the most popular sportswear brands in the world. Both hold large market shares in the sportswear and footwear market, with Adidas holding a 21% market share in sports footwear in the United States and 10% in Western Europe. Being such big brands, both companies need to manage their public image well in order to appeal to the average consumer.

So both brands had to shell out millions to conceal their less than pleasant sides, such as the use of child labor in the construction of many of their shoes. In addition to their modern issues, both brands have a past they’ve been trying to distance themselves from for decades. Their Nazi origin.

Adolf and Rudolf Dassler

Adidas and Puma both started as the brainchild of two brothers living in Weimar, Germany in the 1920s, initially working together to create the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (translated: Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory). This company started in 1924 and for a time the brothers were the only ones in Germany to produce sports shoes.

As a result, the factory would become a key supplier to Hitler Youth clubs after the Nazi takeover. Their shoes were even used as the official sports shoes for the German teams during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

The Dassler shoe factory in Herzogenaurach, Germany around the 1930s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The brothers would continue to work with the government, which led to them joining the Nazi Party with varying enthusiasm. Rudolf has been said to be a much more adamant supporter of National Socialism, while Adolf remained unsupportive of the regime. This turned into an ideological rift, increasing the already widening gap between the two brothers.

During the war, the factory was forcibly converted to produce military equipment for the Nazis, initially focusing on the production of the Panzershrek, a shoulder-launched anti-tank rocket based on the American bazooka. Rudolf would try to convince the Nazi Party’s top brass to allow him to produce patent military boots, a venture that proved unsuccessful. The Dassler factory would continue to produce equipment for the Wehrmacht until the allies broke through and captured their city.


Adolf “Adi” Dassler. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the war ended, the brothers’ cooperation would be stifled by the American denazification program and the persecution of high-level Nazi Party members. Rudolf was suspected of being part of this group of high level Nazis and was therefore interrogated by the Americans at the end of the war, held in an internment camp in Hammelburg until his release on July 31, 1946 after the investigates his Nazi background. proved unsuccessful.

Adolf wouldn’t get away with it either. He was also arrested by those responsible for the denazification campaign and put on trial for his cooperation. After deliberation, Adolf was declared Belasteter, the name given to a category of those who profited from the Nazi regime. This was considered the second most serious offense at the trials, just below joining and engaging with the Nazi Party, and so it carried a 10-year sentence as well as the threat that Adolf would be removed from his functions as head of the Dassler company. His early cooperation with Hitler Youth and Nazi members was used as evidence of this high-level belief.

He would only be saved by the mayor of Herzogenaurach, who was half-Jewish and a trusted Allied cooperator. He testified that Adolf warned him of a possible arrest by the Gestapo and hid him on his own property, while supporting Adolf’s claims of non-involvement with the political side of the Nazi Party.

As a result, he was reclassified to a lower rank of offender, a Minderbelasteter (Translated: Juvenile Delinquent), which still carried a 2–3 year sentence, which would lead to Adolf still losing control of his Dassler business, which his brother Rudolf sought to exploit.

During Adolf’s appeal to lower his status as Minderbelasteter, Rudolf will submit a statement saying that Adolf had organized the arms production himself and for his own benefit rather than being forced into it and that Rudolf resisted the change in production, but he was not present to personally put a term to the change as he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1943. This would be proven false by the company’s financial record, which showed a loss of 100,000 German marks during the arms production period.

Adolf’s wife, Käthe Dassler, would dispute most of Rudolf’s claims, successfully leading to her husband’s demotion to Mitläufer (translated: follower), meaning he could continue to run the shoe factory , although some oversight from the denazification council is still needed. On February 3, 1947, Adolf was officially authorized to take over the management of the company.

Käthe Dassler would become one of the chief executives of the new Adidas after all management and sales staff moved to Puma with Rudolf following the brothers’ separation. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Due to Rudolf’s accusations during the trials and his continued campaign to overthrow Adolf from the company’s leadership, the brothers would become mortal enemies. The two families became increasingly hostile towards each other, blaming the other party for many of the problems they faced during the war. This is how the genesis of Adidas and Puma was born.

A city divided

The year 1947 gave birth to what we know today as Adidas and Puma. Adolf, still having control of the old Dassler shoe factory, sought to rebrand and therefore came up with Adi (Adolf’s nickname) and Das (his surname), creating Adidas AG. Rudolf also wanted to create a brand and took a similar path to his brother, initially creating Ruda (Ru from his first name and Da from his last name), something he would later change, eventually coming up with the name PUMA Schuhfabrik Rudolf Dassler (Translated: Rudolf Dassler’s PUMA shoe factory).

Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler on the left, Rudolf Dassler on the right. Source: Author’s creation using Wikimedia Commons sources

Their hometown of Herzogenaurach would be divided by this bitter rivalry between the two firms. The town developed the nickname “the town of bent necks” because everyone was said to look down to see what brand of shoes you were wearing.

Some took advantage of this rivalry, such as handymen who deliberately showed up at Rudolf’s house with Adidas shoes, which allegedly resulted in Rudolf telling them to fetch a free pair of Pumas from his basement. Even the city’s two football teams were split between the two brands, with ASV Herzogenaurach backed by Adidas and 1 FC Herzogenaurach backed by Puma.

You cannot edit the history

Although the rivalry between Nike and Adidas is bigger right now, the rivalry between Puma and Adidas still exists. With both companies being such giants in a very large and competitive industry, it’s no surprise that the old town rivalry continues to play out to this day.

Even though both companies have a dark past, their innovations should not be left out of history. Adi Dassler revolutionized the sports shoe with his “screw-on cleats”, something that would go down in history as the West Germans made a miraculous comeback against the Hungarians while launching Adi’s innovation in 1954 in winning the game 3-2, permanently securing both Adi and company a place in the history books.

An image of the “Miracle of Bern”, the nickname given to the 3-2 victory against Hungary. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the two brothers were affiliated with the Nazi Party, their membership must always be put into perspective. At a time when non-cooperation with the regime could result in death, the brothers’ collaboration with the National Socialists became much more understandable and even justifiable given the risks they faced if they did not comply.

When analyzing such situations, we must always look at the context to properly quantify its importance. In this context, their membership was not as important as many claim, but it is still a factor we must consider when looking at the history of the two companies.


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