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The Führer's Sneaker
The troubling Third Reich history of Adidas's founders should have compelled the company to be the first - not the last - to cut ties with Kanye West after the rapper's antisemitic outbursts
“Stories, style, and sporting goods at Adidas, since 1949.” That is what Adidas states on its German website. Most fans of its sneakers would not give that a second thought. The problem is it is not true. The two twenty-something brothers whose factory-made track and field shoes had opened their business in a small town near Nuremberg in 1924. Rudolf (Rudi) Dassler, and his younger brother, Adolf (Adi), named it the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Factory. Their spiked shoes, sometimes using nails as makeshift cleats, became a quick favorite of runners on rocky terrain. Their reputation was solidified four years later when a German sprinter wearing a pair of their spiked shoes won a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympics.
The Dasslers joined the Nazi Party on May 1, 1933, only three months after Hitler had become Germany’s chancellor. As successful manufacturers of award-winning sports shoes, their business was tailor-made for a key role in the Nazi programs that emphasized sports and fitness as elements of racial superiority.
Their company sales surged in 1935 when they landed exclusive contracts to Hitler Youth athletic clubs. The brothers boasted about their loyalty to the Third Reich, always signing company letters with the closing “Heil Hitler!”
Their reward was that Hitler made their sports shoes part of the official gear for German team at Berlin’s 1936 Olympics (a retired German Olympian convinced Jesse Owens to wear one of the Dassler spiked shoes during the games; Hitler later thought those shoes had made Owens run faster).
By July 1938, when the Third Reich decreed that even a single Jew on a board of directors made it a “Jewish company,” the Dasslers did not worry. They had no Jewish employees to expunge.
During the war, the brothers worked unsuccessfully on a patented design for army boots. The Nazis converted the Dassler factory to manufacturing military gear, which it did until the Allies closed it after capturing the town in early 1945.
After the war, American intelligence and prosecutors investigated the Dasslers. Rudi and Adi were interrogated and held for over a year in U.S. detention camps. The U.S. tried building a case that Rudi was a key industrialist and fervent Nazi who had played an instrumental role in helping the German war effort. They suspected, but could not establish, that he worked for the Sicherheitsdienst (the SS secret service) responsible for counterespionage and domestic intelligence.
As for Adi, he was tried and found guilty of being a Belasteter, the second most serious class of Nazi offenders. The court ruled he had profited from the Third Reich and gave him a ten-year sentence.
The Americans wanted to remove the Dasslers from control of their family run company. What saved them was the support of many residents from the small town in which the Dasslers were the biggest employer. The mayor claimed he had a Jewish parent and that Adi Dassler had tipped him off to a Gestapo roundup. An appeals tribunal reduced Adi’s sentence to 3 years. After another year of battling the charges, his conviction was reduced to a minor violation as a collaborator. By February 1947 he was free and allowed to resume running the family company. He soon changed its name to Adidas (a combination of Adolf’s nickname, Adi, and the first syllable of his surname, Das).
The postwar American investigation had caused an irreparable rift between the brothers. They had even accused each other of being the more fervent Nazi. Rudi believed that his brother had tipped American intelligence about his own hiding place after the war.
After Rudi left Adidas in 1948, he formed a rival shoe company in the same town and named it PUMA. One resident in every four residents worked at one of the two Dassler factories.
Adi Dassler died in 1978 but his daughters controlled the company he and his brother had founded. After the company went public in 1989, the Dasslers sold their stock.
By the time Adidas announced today that it had terminated its lucrative partnership with Kanye West, Vogue and Balenciaga and the Gap had already cut ties with West because of the rapper’s recent antisemitic rants. Hollywood uber talent agency, CAA, had dropped West and a documentary about the rapper had already been shelved.
Adidas has never directly acknowledged or apologized for the Nazi past of its two founders. Still, it would have been especially gratifying if Adidas had led the way on condemning West’s antisemitism and set the earliest example for other companies by ending its partnership with him. Instead, by being one of the last major business partners to do so, they inadvertently shined a light again on the dark past of its founders.