Contentious games of Uno, fights for the bathroom and uneven custard cream distribution are often the most severe subjects of family feuds, but Adolf and Rudolf Dassler’s historic rift was so abrasive that it divided a German town for 60 years.
The Dassler brothers grew up in poor conditions - their father made a living off slipper manufacturing, but the business barely put food on the table. Determined to follow the family’s footwear trade, Adolf and Rudolf founded the ‘Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company’ in 1920. After 13 years, they became members of the Nazi party; their membership meant the company could remain in business throughout the War.
Controversially, during the 1936 Olympics, Black American athlete Jesse Owens wore their spikes to win 4 gold medals - shattering Hitler’s dreams of an all-Arian victory on the world stage. As one of the first globally televised sporting events, Germany’s Olympics provided international advertisement for the Dassler brothers’ business, although it proved to be the beginning of their intense hatred for one another.
After World War 2, Adolf, credited as the creative sibling, and Rudolf, who was more business minded, went their separate ways. Historians have long speculated to why this could be: affairs, resentment and stealing are commonly argued topics for their conflict.
The brothers shared a bomb shelter throughout World War 2. During an air raid, Adolf and his wife headed for safety, not knowing that his brother was already in the shelter. Allegedly, Adi made a comment under his breath about the opposing air force, saying “The dirty bastards are at it again”. Rudi and his spouse thought the quote was directed at them, which many believe to be the final nail in the coffin of their relationship.
Adi Dassler founded Adidas, an abbreviation of his full name, in 1949, whilst Rudolf started Puma. Neither brother moved from their native town (Herzogenaurach) which has a lucrative history for shoe making. The Aurach river divided the company’s factories, and soon the place was in a state of hostility; where you ate, drank, and what football team you supported was all determined by the factory you worked for.
For the years they lived in rivalry, Adi and Rudi consistently sued each other over trademark and copyright issues. There are very distinctive parallels between the early designs of each brand. Adidas has undoubtedly won the battle, employing 29,000 people today, compared to Puma’s 9,000. The former are renowned for having a more revolutionary impact on sportswear apparel, especially for football. In the 1945 World Cup final, Hungary were 2-0 up at half time: Germany were not coping well with the slippery conditions. Adi Dassler had just invented screw in studs, which were a feature of the German team’s boots. They all replaced them at the break for the longer alternatives and ended the game victorious, winning 3-2.
Both Adolf and Rudolf died in the 1970s, and were buried on opposite ends of the same cemetery. Their corrosive rivalry lived until 2009, when the companies united for a football match in the town of Herzogenaurach. To this day, both sportswear giants have their head offices there, believing the visceral nature of the family feud helps to ignite innovation for the brand’s apparel.
WRITTEN BY LIAM CATTERMOLE