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Athletic Shoes and Anti-Tank Weapons: The Nazi Heritage of Adidas and Puma

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COMMENT: In many pro­grams and posts, we have not­ed the Bor­mann cap­i­tal net­work and its con­trol of cor­po­rate Ger­many. In that regard, it may be use­ful to con­tem­plate the his­to­ry of two of the world’s lead­ing sport­ing shoes companies–Adidas and Puma.

The recent major motion pic­ture “Race” chron­i­cled the vic­to­ries of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. What the movie did not present was one of the out­growths of that vic­to­ry.

Owens’ shoes were man­u­fac­tured by Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, both of them Nazi Par­ty mem­bers since 1933. One or both may have belonged to the SS. Dur­ing the war, the Dassler plant was con­vert­ed to pro­duc­tion of the “Panz­er­schreck” anti-tank weapon, a shoul­der-fired, anti-tank infantry weapon.

Owens’ vic­to­ries were excel­lent pub­lic­i­ty for the Dassler broth­ers’ prod­uct and, after the war, Amer­i­can troops were among those who placed orders for the com­pa­ny’s shoes. Today, it can be tak­en for grant­ed that both firms are part of the Bor­mann cap­i­tal net­work, the eco­nom­ic com­po­nent of the Under­ground Reich.

” . . . . But it was the leg­endary shoes of Owens that estab­lished the Dasslers’ world­wide rep­u­ta­tion and laid the foun­da­tion for two excep­tion­al careers. After the war, Adi and Rudolf went their sep­a­rate ways. Each would build up one of West Ger­many’s show­piece sports com­pa­nies — one Adi­das, the oth­er Puma. . . . But the his­to­ry of the Dasslers – who both joined the Nazi Par­ty in 1933 — would­n’t be com­plete with­out one chap­ter from World War II: In 1944, there was sud­den­ly a spike in the num­ber of Allied tanks being blown apart by Ger­man fire. The cul­prit was the lat­est anti-tank rock­et launch­er, nick­named the “Panz­er­schreck” (“Tank Ter­ror”). This extreme­ly effec­tive weapon pet­ri­fied Allied tank crews — and it was man­u­fac­tured in the same fac­to­ry that had devel­oped Owens’ shoes only eight years ear­li­er. . . . When the sports-crazy Amer­i­cans got wind of the fact that the Dassler broth­ers had pro­duced the shoes that Jesse Owens had run in, they start­ed buy­ing all the prod­ucts the com­pa­ny could pro­duce. Large orders for footwear for bas­ket­ball and base­ball (and hock­ey) soon rolled in and gave the com­pa­ny its first boost on the road to becom­ing a world­wide suc­cess sto­ry. . . .”

pumabossadidas“The Pre­his­to­ry of Adi­das and Puma” by Robert Kuhn and Thomas Thiel; Der Spiegel; 3/4/2009.

When the start­ing shot rang out, the ath­letes surged for­ward. Jesse Owens dug his spikes deep into the rac­ing track of Berlin’s Olympic Sta­di­um — and the best sprint­er of his day dom­i­nat­ed the 100 meters race to win a gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games. Amer­i­ca’s black super­star took home a total of four gold medals. And each of his vic­to­ries rep­re­sent­ed minor tri­umphs for two Ger­man broth­ers as well — Adolf (“Adi”) and Rudolf Dassler — the man­u­fac­tur­ers of the sprint­ing shoes that car­ried the sprint­er of the cen­tu­ry from vic­to­ry to vic­to­ry.

Of course, suc­cess did not come as a total sur­prise. Her­zo­ge­nau­rach, the Dasslers’ home town in Bavaria, has a long tra­di­tion as a cen­ter for shoe­mak­ing. In 1922, for exam­ple, it boast­ed 112 shoe­mak­ers drawn from a pop­u­la­tion of 3,500. It was here, in 1924, that Adolf and Rudolf Dassler found­ed the “Dassler Broth­ers Shoe Fac­to­ry” to spe­cial­ize in ath­let­ic shoes. Dur­ing the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Ange­les, a Ger­man sprint­er wear­ing Dassler spikes took the bronze medal. But it was the leg­endary shoes of Owens that estab­lished the Dasslers’ world­wide rep­u­ta­tion and laid the foun­da­tion for two excep­tion­al careers. After the war, Adi and Rudolf went their sep­a­rate ways. Each would build up one of West Ger­many’s show­piece sports com­pa­nies — one Adi­das, the oth­er Puma.

But the his­to­ry of the Dasslers – who both joined the Nazi Par­ty in 1933 — would­n’t be com­plete with­out one chap­ter from World War II: In 1944, there was sud­den­ly a spike in the num­ber of Allied tanks being blown apart by Ger­man fire. The cul­prit was the lat­est anti-tank rock­et launch­er, nick­named the “Panz­er­schreck” (“Tank Ter­ror”). This extreme­ly effec­tive weapon pet­ri­fied Allied tank crews — and it was man­u­fac­tured in the same fac­to­ry that had devel­oped Owens’ shoes only eight years ear­li­er.

Weld­ing Replaces Stitch­ing

This lit­tle-known excur­sion into the war indus­try by the two famous shoe­mak­ers was hard­ly an iso­lat­ed case. Hitler’s regime used many small and medi­um-sized com­pa­nies to pro­duce mil­i­tary equip­ment and arma­ments. “For the ‘total war’ pro­claimed by Goebbels in ear­ly 1943, the Nazis need­ed a total war econ­o­my,” explains Lutz Budrass, a busi­ness his­to­ri­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bochum.

Sim­i­lar things were hap­pen­ing all across the coun­try — and Ger­man indus­try increas­ing­ly resem­bled one big mil­i­tary machine. The Hugo Boss tex­tile fac­to­ry, for exam­ple, in the south­ern Ger­man town of Met­zin­gen, was also a mil­i­tary sup­pli­er. Begin­ning in late 1944, instead of suits and leather jack­ets, work­ers on the pro­duc­tion floors of the future fash­ion czar were mak­ing ball bear­ings. Ger­many’s flag­ship air­line Lufthansa man­u­fac­tured radar equip­ment for the Luft­waffe, Ger­many’s air force, and fur­ni­ture com­pa­nies made parts for fight­er jets like the Heinkel He 162, one of the first mil­i­tary jets in the world. Giv­en the scarci­ty of met­al, the jet was pri­mar­i­ly made of wood.

Four years into World War II, not much Olympic glo­ry was left among the shoe­mak­ers of Her­zo­ge­nau­rach. The Ger­man army was on the retreat on vir­tu­al­ly all fronts, bombs were rain­ing down on Ger­man cities and resources were run­ning short. Decem­ber 1943 marked the final blow for the town’s shoe pro­duc­tion. Hitler’s regime ordered a halt to all civil­ian busi­ness oper­a­tions, and the shoe-mak­ing machines in the Dassler Broth­ers’ pro­duc­tion hall were replaced with spot-weld­ing equip­ment for mak­ing weapons. Before long, near­ly every­one in Her­zo­ge­nau­rach was work­ing for the mil­i­tary. The local leder­ho­sen fac­to­ry stopped mak­ing the tra­di­tion­al Bavar­i­an leather shorts and, instead, start­ed pro­duc­ing bread bags and ruck­sacks for sol­diers. A near­by fam­i­ly busi­ness made tor­pe­do parts for the navy.

A Com­plete­ly Mil­i­ta­rized Indus­tri­al Land­scape

The Ger­man army fash­ioned the Dasslers’ Panz­er­schreck after the Amer­i­can bazooka: a shoul­der-fired steel tube; weight 9.3 kilo­grams (20.5 lbs); length 164 cen­time­ters (5.4 feet); with a range of up to 180 meters (590 feet). A rock­et fired from the Panz­er­schreck could pen­e­trate steel armor 20 cen­time­ters (8 inch­es) thick.

Respon­si­bil­i­ty for actu­al­ly pro­duc­ing the new weapon lay with the mil­i­tary con­trac­tor Schrick­er & Co., locat­ed in the near­by town of Vach. But giv­en the increas­ing­ly dev­as­tat­ing British and Amer­i­can air raids on Ger­man cities, Schrick­er decid­ed to trans­fer assem­bly oper­a­tions to Her­zo­ge­nau­rach. Freight cars filled with parts for the “Stove Pipe” — as the Panz­er­schreck was pop­u­lar­ly called on account of its sim­ple con­struc­tion — came to Dassler by rail.

Inside the plant, shoe seam­stress­es — who had quick­ly been giv­en makeshift train­ing to work in the arma­ments indus­try — weld­ed sights and blast shields onto the pipes. French forced labor­ers were also on the pro­duc­tion line. “The con­struc­tion of the Panz­er­schreck was so sim­ple that, giv­en a lit­tle prac­tice, even unskilled work­ers had hard­ly any prob­lems man­u­fac­tur­ing it,” one for­mer employ­ee told local his­to­ri­an Man­fred Welk­er. But even with the sim­ple design, Ger­man army inspec­tors still found them­selves dis­card­ing many of the weapons made by Her­zo­ge­nau­rach’s ama­teurs on account of their flaws. The com­pli­cat­ed and dan­ger­ous pro­duc­tion of the rock­ets, though, con­tin­ued to be han­dled by the pro­fes­sion­als in Vach.

An Answer to the Tank, Too Late

On the front, Ger­man sol­diers eager­ly await­ed the Dassler weapon. Despite its exceed­ing­ly sim­ple design, it was still remark­ably effec­tive. “The Panz­er­schreck rep­re­sent­ed a quan­tum leap for the infantry in terms of anti-tank defense,” explains Chris­t­ian Hart­mann, a mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an at the Munich-based Insti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary His­to­ry (IfZ). “It was the first weapon that Ger­man infantry­men fight­ing on their own could use to destroy tanks from a dis­tance.”

In view of the rapid­ly advanc­ing Allied armies, which were vast­ly supe­ri­or in terms of sheer num­bers, the Nazis increas­ing­ly prop­a­gat­ed the idea that any­one could knock out tanks using only the Panz­er­schreck or its lit­tle broth­er, the sin­gle-use “Panz­er­faust” (“Tank Fist”). An illus­trat­ed field book­let enti­tled “Der Panz­erk­nack­er” (“The Tank Buster”), for exam­ple, includ­ed awk­ward rhythms meant to help Ger­man sol­diers rec­og­nize and com­bat ene­my tanks, such as: “Notice first the fine design / slop­ing armor and curv­ing line / five road wheels, study it well / that’s the T‑34, and that’s how you tell.”

Wher­ev­er the spe­cial­ly trained “tank-destroy­ing detach­ments” made an appear­ance, there was a sig­nif­i­cant increase in the num­ber of ene­my tanks knocked out. In March 1945, there were some 92,000 Panz­er­schrecks being used on the crum­bling fronts. But the weapons had arrived too late to have a major influ­ence on the war’s out­come. It was­n’t until 1944 that Panz­er­schrecks and Panz­er­fausts could be deployed on a large scale, but by then the mil­i­tary’s ini­tial good for­tune had long since run out. “If large num­bers of Panz­er­schrecks could have been deployed dur­ing the Russ­ian cam­paign in 1941, Moscow would have prob­a­bly fall­en,” says Hart­mann. As it turned out, the “stove pipe” was just one of many new­ly devel­oped weapons that, at best, post­poned the col­lapse of the fronts — and there­by only pro­longed the hor­ror of the war.

A Stroke of Amer­i­can Luck

The Dasslers’ brief career as weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers near­ly proved their undo­ing. In April 1945, when the Amer­i­cans marched into Her­zo­ge­nau­rach, US tanks pulled up in front of the fac­to­ry. The sol­diers were still debat­ing whether they should destroy the build­ing when Adi’s wife, Käthe, walked out and charm­ing­ly con­vinced the GIs that the com­pa­ny and its employ­ees were only inter­est­ed in man­u­fac­tur­ing sports shoes.

What’s more, after the fac­to­ry was saved, the occu­py­ing forces turned out to be a bless­ing for the two shoe­mak­ers. The US Air Force set up its own oper­a­tions at the for­mer mil­i­tary air base in Her­zo­ge­nau­rach. When the sports-crazy Amer­i­cans got wind of the fact that the Dassler broth­ers had pro­duced the shoes that Jesse Owens had run in, they start­ed buy­ing all the prod­ucts the com­pa­ny could pro­duce. Large orders for footwear for bas­ket­ball and base­ball (and hock­ey) soon rolled in and gave the com­pa­ny its first boost on the road to becom­ing a world­wide suc­cess sto­ry.

The dark chap­ter as a wartime weapons man­u­fac­tur­er was quick­ly for­got­ten at the suc­ces­sor com­pa­nies, Adi­das and Puma. Today, both firms are cor­po­ra­tions owned by investors spread across the world. In the qui­et com­mu­ni­ty of Her­zo­ge­nau­rach, though, it was a lega­cy that would be felt for many years to come — and seen, in the pipes put to use all over town as gut­ters and fence posts rather than as the Panz­er­schrecks they had orig­i­nal­ly been meant for.

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