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.
Editor's Note: This feature originally appeared on einestages.de, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal.