Sibling rivalry is often the stuff of legend. Just think of the murderous tale of Cain and Abel from the Bible. Then there’s the fraught relationship of Romulus and Remus in Roman mythology. But while these stories are well known, some people may be unaware that sportswear history has its very own bickering brothers in the form of Rudolf and Adolf Dassler.
The Dassler brothers began life in the German town of Herzogenaurach. And it’s here that they worked at their mother’s laundry before following their father’s footsteps into the footwear trade. With Adolf’s ingenuity and Rudolf’s business acumen, the pair were an unstoppable force. But their union was not to last.
And so, following World War II, the Dassler brothers went their separate ways, both in business and in life. Their rift not only ripped apart a family, but also a town, whose residents became split according to their allegiance to either Rudolf or Adolf’s company. But despite their troubled beginnings, both companies became worldwide successes in the form of sportswear brands Adidas and Puma.
The Dassler brothers were born to parents Christoph and Algirdas in Herzogenaurach, a small town 12.5 miles outside of Nuremberg in the state of Bavaria, Germany. The younger of four siblings, Rudolf was born in March 1898. Meanwhile, Adolf followed just over two years later, in November 1900.
Meanwhile, the Dassler family had traditionally been dyers and weavers. However, due to a decline in the local textile trade, Rudolf and Adolf’s father Christoph decided to leave the industry behind. Instead, he learned how to make shoes – in particular intricately stitched felt slippers – and became a cobbler at a nearby factory.
While Christoph worked making shoes, Algirdas ran a laundry business from their family home – and all the Dassler children helped her. Daughter Marie worked there too, while Rudolf, Adolf and their other brother Fritz delivered clean goods all over town. As a result, they earned the nickname the “laundry boys.”
However, after Adolf finished school, it looked likely he would swap delivering clothes for making bread, when he secured an apprenticeship as a baker. Ultimately though, Adolf had no real interest in baking. So instead he spent much of his spare time pursuing his many athletic passions. And these included track and field events, boxing, soccer, skiing and ice-hockey.
However, everything changed in Germany in 1914 due to the onset of World War I, which saw the Dassler boys get conscripted into the army. But given that his age at the outbreak of the conflict, Adolf remained at home longer than his older brothers.
So with the older Dassler boys away at war, Adolf completed his apprenticeship. But he ultimately decided that baking was not his future. Instead, he decided to take up cobbling, learning how to sew from his father. And it’s then that Adolf became interested in how shoe design could impact sporting performance.
Soon Adolf came to the realization that designing specialized footwear to suit each specific sport might significantly affect athletic performances. It appeared that the young man had stumbled upon an ingenious business idea. However, he would have to wait until he got back from war to put his idea into action.
Indeed, conscription meant that Adolf joined the German Army before his 18th birthday in June 1918. And, although World War I ended in November that year, he remained in the military until October 1919. He then returned home and saw the economic devastation that the war had caused in his hometown.
For one, Adolf and Rudolf’s mother Algirdas had to scrap the family’s laundry business. So with no job to return to, Adolf decided to finally put his specialized sport shoes idea into practice. To do so, he set up a small workshop where the laundry had previously existed. Meanwhile, he also took on a job repairing shoes to keep himself afloat.
Though cobbling materials were hard to come by in the post-war climate, Adolf was innovative with the supplies he could get his hands on. He scavenged the countryside for old leather, helmets and parachute silk left behind during World War I which he could put to use in his designs. However, he didn’t merely just throw together what he could find. Instead he experimented with materials to ensure his shoes were tough but lightweight.
During this time, Adolf turned to his father Christoph for shoemaking advice. And he also enlisted the help of his childhood pal Fritz Zehlein, whose family owned a blacksmiths. They forged handmade spikes for Adolf’s running shoes, which were to become some of the earliest examples of spiked track shoes.
Rudolf, however, didn’t join the business until 1923. Prior to that, he’d trained to become a policeman, but instead he joined his brother’s firm. And a year later the Dasslers founded the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik – or the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory. And by 1925 the company was producing leather football boots and spiked running shoes.
While Adolf assumed the role of creative lead in the business, Rudolf operated as a savvy businessman. And it was Adolf’s primitive running spikes that proved to be the company’s stand out success. As a result, the German track and field team were soon wearing them, as were other sportspeople.
As early as 1928 the Dasslers’ shoes were enjoying exposure on an international level at the Amsterdam Olympic Games. German middle distance runner Lina Radke even took gold in a pair of Dassler spikes. And later another German runner won gold in Dasslers at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
But while these examples were no doubt helpful in marketing Dassler shoes, it was perhaps the rise of Adolf Hitler that contributed most to the success of the company in its early days. That’s because the Nazi Party promoted athletic teamwork nationwide. And never failing to see a business opportunity, all three of the Dassler brothers signed up to join the party in May 1933, three months after Hitler became Chancellor.
Though Rudolf was rumored to be a more avid supporter of the Nazis, it was Adolf who became a sports coach in Hitler’s Youth Movement in 1935. Using this position, he also started to supply athletics clubs with Dassler shoes. And this meant the company had to then expand their production.
Meanwhile, it was later claimed that the Dassler brothers only joined the Nazi Party in order to protect their business – as firms were required to do so at the time. And their part in one of the most iconic sporting moments of the 1930s would seem to suggest that they didn’t share all of Hitler’s views. That’s because, when African-American athlete Jesse Owens set a long jump record in front of the Führer at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, he did so wearing a pair of Dassler shoes.
But while the Dassler business was on the up, all was not well between the two brothers at the helm of the company. It’s believed that tensions began in March 1934, when Adolf married his wife Käthe Martz. Apparently, the latter didn’t see eye to eye with Adolf’s family, including Rudolf and his wife.
However, despite the bad feeling between Adolf and Rudolf’s wives, the two couples persisted to live under the one roof in a single villa. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that the feud between the brothers would eventually intensify. And one single incident during World War II is rumored to have broken Adolf and Rudolf’s bond forever.
According to the story, the most damaging event to Adolf and Rudolf’s relationship took place during the Allied bombing of their hometown Herzogenaurach during World War II. As Adolf and his wife joined Rudolf and his family in a bomb shelter, the younger brother commented, “The dirty b******* are back again.” He was seemingly referring to those behind the bombardment, but Rudolf believed the remark had been aimed at him and his relatives.
From that moment, it appears that the relationship between Adolf and Rudolf spiraled out of control. When Rudolf was later enlisted into the German military, he became convinced that his brother had arranged for him to be sent to war. That way, Adolf and his wife could have had their shoe business all to themselves.
Now on the front line of World War II, things soon got even worse for Rudolf. The Germans arrested him for being a deserter when he apparently left his post in a bid to get back to his beloved factory. Then, to make matters worse, the Allies also captured Rudolf, accusing him of aiding the Gestapo.
In both these instances, Rudolf was sure that his brother Adolf had been behind his arrests. And his suspicions appeared to be at least partly confirmed when a report from a U.S. investigation revealed that Adolf had testified against his brother. As a result, after ending the war in a Gestapo-ran prison camp, Rudolf found himself incarcerated by the Americans in the town of Hammelburg.
With Rudolf out the way at the internment camp, Adolf focused on rebuilding his business. Making the most of wartime opportunities, he would later sell his goods to American G.I.s. And thanks to Adolf’s commitment, in 1943 the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory was the only German firm still making specialized sporting footwear.
However, as the war raged on, policies that redirected the workforce into the German defence industry took their toll on the Dassler business. As a result, from 1943 to 1945, the factory made weapon parts in order to contribute to the war effort. And even after World War II came to a close, the Dassler brothers found no cause to celebrate.
In fact, the years immediately after the war were some of the toughest for Adolf, Rudolf and the family. It was then that a period of “denazification” occurred, during which party members were removed from positions of power in a bid to rid the country of Nazism. And during this time, Adolf and Rudolf tried to accuse the other of being the bigger Nazi in an attempt to save themselves from punishment.
In the end, the Americans – who spearheaded denazification – decided that Adolf and Rudolf’s involvement with the Nazi Party was relatively small. As such, they escaped punishment and eventually got permission to continue running their shoe business. But there was no going back for the two brothers, as far as their relationship was concerned.
With that in mind, in 1948 Adolf and Rudolf agreed to split their business and go their separate ways. They divided their assets and employees between them – and even family members chose a side. Their mother sided with Rudolf, while their sister, Marie, stuck by Adolf. And after splitting their businesses, workforce and relatives, the two brothers never spoke to each other again.
Rudolf left the Dassler family home and moved across the river Aurach in Herzogenaurach, close to where his factory was located. Adolf remained on the other side of the water, combining his names to call his company Adidas. Rudolph followed a similar path, first naming his business Ruda. However, this later became the more agile-sounding Puma.
Then as both companies grew, Adidas and Puma became responsible for most of their hometown’s economy. However, the rift between the siblings left Herzogenaurach bitterly divided. Historian Manfried Welker explained to Vice in 2017, “Naturally, the workers went shopping on their side and lived on their side.” But dispelling rumors that it was unsafe for workers to cross to the other side of the river, he added, “It wasn’t a bloody war or anything.”
However, there are stories of businesses in Herzogenaurach only serving either the Adidas or Puma workers. Apparently, the community even frowned upon weddings across company lines. Meanwhile, Herzogenaurach earned the nickname “town of bent necks.” That’s because the townsfolk would reportedly look down to see what shoe’s a person was wearing before giving them the time of day.
As the years passed, Adidas became a bigger company than Puma, thanks in part to Adolf’s technical expertise and his connections in the sporting world. As a result, under Rudolf’s leadership, Puma remained fairly small. However, with his son Armin Dassler at the helm, it became a global company, arguably in the same league as Adidas.
However, both Adidas and Puma failed to effectively deal with the rise of rival sportswear company Nike. Consequently, the U.S. brand would eventually come to dominate the athletic footwear market. And it dwarfed Adidas and Puma’s achievements in the process.
But even with a new rival to contend with in the form of Nike, Adolf and Rudolf couldn’t put their rift behind them. They are rumored to have met a few times in later life, but it’s not known if any form of reconciliation occurred. What is confirmed is that Adolf declined an invitation to talk to Rudolf when the latter was dying in 1974.
Adolf himself died four years later, in 1978. And in the decade that followed Adidas struggled to adapt to changing consumer trends. As a result, Adolf’s four daughters decided to sell the company in 1989. That very same year, Rudolf’s two sons also sold their stake in Puma, three years after the business became a public company.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Adidas and Puma reconciled during a friendly soccer match played in Herzogenaurach. For Adolf and Rudolf though, the animosity lives on. While they are laid to rest in the same cemetery, they remain at different ends – separated in death as they were in life.
Nowadays, the Dassler’s hometown of Herzogenaurach shows little sign of the segregation caused by Adidas and Puma. However, there are still nods to the brothers left all over town, including one statue of two boys making shoes with an older man. It harks back to the Dasslers’ childhood days, when – just like shoes – the unstoppable duo came in a pair.