Tuesday, February 24, 2009
A tale of three stripes and family strife
The other day I finally started reading a quite unusual book. It's unusual because it was written in English by a Dutch woman living in France about a German company-cum-family. It's also unusual because it's currently available under two different titles in English and also under two different titles in German, none of which corresponds to either of the English titles.
The reason I had long meant to read this book, first published in 2005, is that I thought it would focus on one of my pet stories as regards German football (and, in fact, the world of sports in general) and would shed some light on a few mysteries.
Actually, I'm so fascinated by this story that I decided to give it quite some room when, eight years go, I sat down to write ''Tor!'' (Uli's seminal book on the history of German football), even though none of the people involved was a football player, coach or official.
The story took place in a modest town in Middle Franconia, some fifteen miles north-west of Nuremberg, a village almost exactly cut in half by a river. The river is called Aurach, the place is called Herzogenaurach. Today it is home to some 25,000 souls but back when the story began, in the 1920s, only a few thousand people lived in Herzogenaurach.
Among them was a trained weaver, then toiling in one of the surprisingly many shoe factories, a man by the name of Christoph Dassler.
Dassler had three sons. The two we are concerned with were Rudolf, born in 1898, and Adolf, born in 1900. Even though the two were close, they were very different. While Rudolf was outgoing to the point of arrogance, brash and given to tantrums, Adolf was reserved and quiet, sometimes even pensive. However, he found an outlet in sports, which he loved so much it bordered on obsession.
In early 1920, Adolf, known as ''Adi'', set up his own, tiny shoe company, just 500-feet north of the river, and decided to concentrate on the production of sports shoes. Four years later, Rudolf joined his younger brother to form a formidable partnership: Adi would use his craftsmanship to make the best shoes money could buy, Rudolf would use his marketing skills to sell them to the world.
The company was such a runaway success that the brothers soon relocated to a bigger building a stone's throw south of the river. At the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, German track-and-field athletes wore Dassler shoes, and in 1936, Jesse Owens became the star of the Berlin Olympics in footwear from small Herzogenaurach. Then came the war.
The history books will tell you it lasted for six years, but for the brothers Dassler it never ended.
Most people blame Rudolf and his terrible temper for the drama that unfolded in the first months of 1948. He had spent four years at the front in Belgium during World War I and was sent to Poland during World War II. Adi, on the other hand, spent the larger part of the first war in a bakery at home and the bulk of the second running his factory that now had to produce army goods.
There is a theory that says Rudolf felt hard done by and developed some form of persecution mania that had him believe Adi was scheming and plotting to oust him from the company.
There are other theories that say a woman was involved, for instance because Rudolf disliked Adi's wife Käthe with a passion. Or perhaps it was some other form of passion, as the book I was talking about also mentions the rumour that Adi's and Käthe's son Horst was in fact fathered by Rudolf.
This is an enticing thought, as it would add some truly mythical elements to a story that is epic enough to begin with. Because Horst would later defend Adi's legacy and relentlessly fight Rudolf's legal son Armin. Did Horst unknowingly waste all of his waking hours on eroding what was in effect his own palace?
It's unlikely. Horst was born too early, in 1936, when all was still well in the Dassler camp. And yet Rudolf and Käthe may have been an item later, perhaps in 1940. A 2007 book by Rolf-Herbert Peters on the history of Rudolf's empire says there's hardly any doubt anymore that Rudolf had a brief affair with his brother's wife, which ultimately caused the split. In other words, Rudolf's persecution mania may have been rooted in fact, though he had only himself to blame.
However, rumours and speculations are all these theories are.
Because, for the rest of their lives, Adi and Rudolf refused to talk about what triggered the events of March and April 1948. (Basically, Adi never gave interviews at all.) Even today, Frank Dassler, Rudolf's grandson, says: ''No one knows how it started. They took it to their graves. Some older family members simply talk of a big misunderstanding that was never solved.''
And so all we know for certain is that Rudolf packed his things and his family and set up camp in one of the company's factories, a few steps north of the river.
In what may have been the last conversation Adi and Rudolf ever had, the two decided that neither would continue the old company but that they would form two new ones. Two companies, as it turned out, whose primary goal was not just to dominate the market but to destroy the other one.
Adi Dassler used his name to christen the company south of the river: adidas. Rudolf initially wanted to do a similar thing with his own name and the company north of the river. But his first choice, ''Ruda'', didn't sound good. In the end, he settled on Puma.
Thus the Dasslers became a family torn into two feuding halves. And Herzogenaurach became a village cut into two parts at enmity with each other. Barbara Smit says the place became known as ''the town of bent necks'', because people who met in the streets would first look at the shoes the other was wearing. To know whether you could say hello or not.
Barbara Smit is the author of the book I mentioned at the beginning. In English, it was first published as ''Pitch Invasion'' and is now called ''Sneaker Wars''. The German versions are called ''Three Stripes Against Puma'' and ''The Dasslers''.
None of those titles will really point you in the right direction. Smit is primarily a business journalist, not a biographer. Thus her book is more about the business history of a company than about the individual characters who achieved staggering success and yet, the end, all lost. (Though the second half of Smit's book is peopled with more characters than I could keep track of.)
And it's about the business history of only one company, adidas. Once the southside clan had practically defeated its rival, in the early 1970s, Puma makes only very brief appearances in Smit's story.
Still, there's enough drama, intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and delusion of grandeur in this book to keep you glued to the pages to the bitter end and beyond. Like I said, you'll probably lose the red thread once the business deals get too complicated, but it's not about the details anyway.
For instance, I'm grateful to Smit for teaching me that Horst Dassler was fighting his own family, his conservative and cautious parents plus his sisters, as much as Rudolf and then Armin. I wasn't aware that Horst's French division of adidas had in fact been a shadow empire and that he had kept the Herzogenaurach camp in the dark about his outrageous deals and the steps he undertook to achieve more power than anyone before or after has ever had in the world of sport.
And so the decline in the late 1980s wasn't just down to the fact that Horst and Armin were at each other's throats so obsessively that they simply missed the coming of Nike and Reebok. Another factor was that the family strife was so complete the members of the two clans were also clashing among themselves.
Rudolf's clan finally lost control of Puma in 1989, as Armin was dying of cancer. Horst had unexpectedly died in 1987 but his branch of the Dassler family held out longer. Though not much longer: Adi's descendants lost adidas on July 4, 1990. A few hours later the West German national team beat England to reach the World Cup final. As always, it wore the three stripes.