Fact Check

Was Adidas Founded by a Former Nazi?

The shoe and sportswear company was founded in 1949 by Adi Dassler, whose previous enterprise had manufactured military equipment for Nazi Germany.

Published Oct 27, 2022

 (FelixReimann/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via FelixReimann/Wikimedia Commons
Claim:
Shoes and sportswear company Adidas was founded by a former Nazi.
Context

The man who founded Adidas in 1949 had been a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, but the extent of his involvement with the party and its tenets is debated.

Fact Check

After rapper and fashion designer Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, caused an uproar by making anti-Semitic comments, a number of prominent companies rescinded their partnerships with him, including Adidas. The sportswear giant had been in a decade-long partnership with Ye, developing his Yeezy branded sneakers and other products that became best selling items. 

On Oct. 25, 2022, Adidas announced that they were terminating their partnership with Ye:

adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech. Ye's recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company's values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness.

After a thorough review, the company has taken the decision to terminate the partnership with Ye immediately, end production of Yeezy branded products and stop all payments to Ye and his companies. adidas will stop the adidas Yeezy business with immediate effect.

This is expected to have a short-term negative impact of up to €250 million on the company's net income in 2022 given the high seasonality of the fourth quarter.  

But the company has its own dark ties to anti-Semitism, in the form of its founder, Adolf "Adi" Dassler, who had been a member of the Nazi Party. Dassler, according to the Adidas website, registered a company in 1924 as "Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik" with the aim of creating the best sports equipment. After this, the website skips over a chunk of history, and goes to 1949:

On August 18, 1949, Adi Dassler started over again at the age of 49, registered the 'Adi Dassler adidas Sportschuhfabrik' and set to work with 47 employees in the small town of Herzogenaurach. In the same year, he registered a shoe that included the registration of the soon-to-become-famous adidas 3-Stripes.

So what was Dassler up to before and during World War II? His first company was actually started in 1924 with his brother Rudolf. Although a German sprinter wearing the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory's shoes won the bronze medal at the Olympics in 1932, it was Black American sprinter Jesse Owens who won multiple gold medals wearing Dassler Brothers shoes in 1936, putting the company on the map. 

The Dasslers both joined the Nazi party in 1933, according to the German magazine Der Spiegel. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Sports Studies, their initial company had "prospered in the Nazi years in the 1930s, as sport became a popular pursuit associated with the goals of the Hitler regime." Adi even joined the Hitler Youth in 1935 as a sports coach and supplier. 

Like many small and medium-sized companies in war-era Germany, they participated in the Nazi war effort. Four years into World War II, the shoemakers in Herzogenaurach, the Dasslers' hometown, were suffering and ordered to cease all civilian operations in Dec. 1943. The German army was in retreat, and resources were scarce. The Dassler factory's shoe-making machines were converted into spot-welding equipment for weapons manufacturing. At this point, everyone in Herzogenaurach was working for the military. 

The brothers reportedly disagreed on politics, however. According to the book "Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sport" by Barbara Smit, Rudolf was more sympathetic to the Nazi cause, while Adolf preferred to focus on the business:

The stranglehold that the Nazis established on all aspects of German life forced both brothers to become more deeply involved with the movement. They signed off letters with the obligatory "Heil Hitler!" They held the same, swastika-stamped membership card of the National Socialist Driver Corps, the NSKK. The two brothers, however, didn't embrace the cause with equal warmth. While Rudolf vocally expressed his approval of the government's policies, Adi usually stuck to his ordinary, hardworking decency.

The Dasslers aided in manufacturing the Panzerschreck, also known as the "Stovepipe," a weapon fashioned after the American bazooka. The Stovepipe was a shoulder-fired steel tube that could penetrate 8-inch thick steel armor. In the plant, shoe seamstresses became welders, and French people were forced laborers. 

"The Panzerschreck represented a quantum leap for the infantry in terms of anti-tank defense," Christian Hartmann, a military historian at the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ), told Der Spiegel. "It was the first weapon that German infantrymen fighting on their own could use to destroy tanks from a distance."

And yet, it arrived too late to turn the war in favor of Germany. As Allied forces took over their town and debated destroying their factory, it was Adi's wife, Käthe, who convinced the soldiers that they were only interested in making sports shoes. And the occupying forces became a blessing for the shoe company-- after the U.S. set up a military base in the town and learned that the Dasslers had manufactured Jesse Owens' shoes, they began buying all their products. Large orders from Americans for basketball, baseball, and hockey products gave the Dasslers their first major boost worldwide. 

Accounts of Adi's relationship with the Nazi Party after the war varied. According to "Sneaker Wars," Adi argued that his participation was a sign of "political ignorance." However, during the denazification efforts of the postwar era, he was accused of profiting from the war by a committee.

In response, Adi cited his hiring of a prominent antifascist in the factory, alongside refugees and prisoners whom he claimed to have treated generously. He claimed that he had focused on sports, conscientiously staying away from political rallies, and was a prominent member of numerous sports organizations, affiliated with conflicting political movements. The book goes on to describe his relationship with Jewish community members:

When it came to his relationship with Jews, the shoemaker's records confirmed that he continued to deal with Jewish leather traders long after this had become politically incorrect. But the most convincing piece of evidence in this respect was a letter from Hans Wormser, mayor of the adjoining village of Weisendorf, who described himself as a half-Jew. Wormser vividly recalled how Adolf Dassler had warned him of his impending arrest by the Gestapo and sheltered the mayor in his property. "A true supporter of Adolf Hitler would certainly not have done this, putting his existence and the well-being of his family on the line," Wormser wrote.

Rudolf eventually split from Adolf Dassler after the war, going on to found Puma as a rival operation across the river, which became a global company in its own right. Their split was acrimonious, influenced in part by Rudolf being arrested by American soldiers, and accused of being a high-ranking Nazi Party member, who performed counterespionage and censorship. He was told that his arrest was triggered by a "denunciation," which he suspected came from his brother. Later, in front of denazification committees, Rudolf would accuse his brother of being entirely responsible for the production of the Stovepipe. Käthe would go on to defend her husband, saying he did everything he could to exonerate his brother, and that Rudolf was responsible for holding political speeches outside their factory.

Adi was first classified by the committees as someone who profited greatly off the Nazi regime, and after numerous appeals to change his classification, his wife's defense, and amidst fighting with his own brother, he was classified as a "Mitlåufer," one of millions of Germans who became party members without actively contributing to the Nazi regime. After all the mudslinging, the brothers resolved to split.

Adidas officially came into being in 1949, and the company website picks up its own telling of the story from there, ignoring the war years in between.

Sources:

Allyn, Bobby. "Adidas Cuts Ties with Ye over Antisemitic Remarks That Caused an Uproar." NPR, 25 Oct. 2022. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2022/10/25/1131285970/adidas-ye-kanye-west-antisemitic. Accessed 27 Oct. 2022.

"History ." Adidas, https://www.adidas-group.com/en/about/history/. Accessed 27 Oct. 2022.

Kuhn, Robert, and Thomas Thiel. "Shoes and Nazi Bazookas: The Prehistory of Adidas and Puma." Der Spiegel, 4 Mar. 2009. www.spiegel.de, https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/shoes-and-nazi-bazookas-the-prehistory-of-adidas-and-puma-a-611400.html. Accessed 27 Oct. 2022.

Smit, Barbara. "Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sports." United States, HarperCollins, 2009. Accessed 27 Oct. 2022.

Tomlinson, Alan. A Dictionary of Sports Studies. Oxford University Press, 2010. Google Books, https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Dictionary_of_Sports_Studies/r_Ujf9-TmBUC?hl=en&gbpv=0. Accessed 27 Oct. 2022.

Updates

1 Nov. 2022: Edited misspelling of "Dassler."

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.

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