The Secret Nazi History of Gym Shoes

What is it with athletic shoes? Why do they keep getting inextricably entangled with Nazis and anti-Semites?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the recent controversy surrounding New Balance, which began when, the day after Election Day, the Boston-based company’s vice president of public affairs, Matt LeBretton, said to a Wall Street Journal reporter, “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” Matthew LeBretton may have been talking specifically about Donald Trump’s position on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement (Trump opposes it, as did Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders), but the damage was done. The last remaining manufacturer of athletic footwear in the U.S. immediately became identified with Trump, prompting a backlash that included viral images of New Balance sneakers in trash bins or alight in bonfires, along with calls to boycott the Boston-based company which, according to the Journal, operates five factories with about 1,400 employees in New England.

As if that weren’t enough of a public-relations headache, New Balance suddenly found support from the strangest of places when neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin declared New Balance the “Official Shoes of White People.” According to the Washington Post, Anglin posted on his website, the hate-filled Daily Stormer (named after the Nazi newspaper “Der Stürmer”), “It’s time to get on-board with New Balance now. Their brave act has just made them the official brand of the Trump Revolution.” Suddenly, Matt LeBretton’s p.r. headache became a p.r. nightmare, a full-fledged Tylenol moment for New Balance.

(In fairness to New Balance, the company did respond to the controversy with a statement disavowing any support of Trump or bigotry, and emphasized the virtues of being a family-owned, made-in-America manufacturer, which would explain its opposition to the TPP.)

Of course, this isn’t the first time that athletic shoes have stepped in Nazi doo-doo. In small-town Germany in the 1920s, Adolf “Adi” Dassler and Rudolph “Rudi” Dassler were partners in the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company, operating out of their mother’s laundry room in the small German town of Herzogenaurach. The brothers joined the Nazi party when Hitler seized power in 1933. Their shoes were so successful that they were worn by many athletes at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games – even by American runner Jesse Owens.

The brothers eventually had a falling out – Rudi blamed Adi for ratting him out, first to the German military (which drafted him), then to the Allied occupation forces (which imprisoned him) – and Dassler Brothers split into two rival companies: Adidas (a made-up word constructed from Adi’s name) and Puma (“Ruda” just lacked the right ring). While those two companies were bitterly fighting with each other for decades, an American upstart named Nike eventually won the international market for sports shoes – although not without its own controversies for exploiting cheap, overseas labor in China and in Southeast Asian sweatshops, some of which “employ” child workers.

And no, that honeycomb pattern on the bottom of Vans is not a secret plot to make people step on the Star of David.

Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor for the Forward. He just doesn’t feel right wearing athletic shoes, period.

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