The Nazi past of Adidas, which took weeks to drop Kanye West for being anti-Semitic.
As rap star Kanye West keeps going on his antisemitic rants, some of the places he is connected to are starting to cut ties with him. Balenciaga and Vogue, two big names in fashion, have said they will no longer work with him. The biggest talent agency in Hollywood, CAA, dropped him, and a documentary that was going to be made about him was canceled.
But until early Tuesday morning, West still had one powerful company on his side: Adidas.
Even though the German sportswear company said earlier this month that it was "reviewing" its relationship with West, it took six days after West said on a podcast, "I can literally say anti-Semitic s— and they can't drop me," for Adidas to end its relationship with him.
Neo-Nazi groups started using West's words against Jews and put up an anti-Semitic billboard in Los Angeles, which the White House condemned on Monday. But the brand kept quiet.
The Anti-Defamation League started a growing public campaign to get the company to cut ties with West, and celebrities like Kat Dennings, David Schwimmer, and Busy Phillips helped it. Other celebrities, like Reese Witherspoon and West's ex-wife Kim Kardashian, have spoken out against antisemitism without mentioning Adidas or West. Jessica Seinfeld, a Jewish cookbook author and the wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, started a viral Instagram movement when she asked her followers to share a post that said, "I support my Jewish friends and the Jewish people."
People are keeping an eye on Adidas because of its hugely profitable partnership with Kanye West. Their shoes and clothes made about $2 billion last year and gave the brand cultural cachet among young consumers. But the company also has ties to the Nazis that it rarely talks about in public. Kasper Rorsted, the CEO of the company, said in August that he would step down in 2023.
Here is a short version of Adidas's past with Nazis, Jews, and the famous rapper who now goes by the name Ye.
Does Adidas really have roots in the Nazi party?
Yes, but it was set up before the Nazis came to power. In Weimar-era Germany, cobbler brothers Adolf ("Adi") and Rudolf Dassler started the company in 1924 as the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, or Geda for short.
The Dassler brothers, who lived in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, made a name for themselves quickly by making some of the first spiked shoes, which were drilled with nails to help runners on uneven ground.
According to Barbara Smit's book "Sneaker Wars," a history of Adidas, the Dassler brothers joined the Nazi party on May 1, 1933. At the time, the company was doing well and Hitler had just taken power in Germany.
The Nazis saw sports as a way to raise Germany's public profile and train young men for its future armies, so the innovative shoe company fit right into their plans. Under Nazi rule, the Dasslers' sneaker sales went through the roof, and they quickly grew their business by many times.
During the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Hitler planned to show the world that Aryans were the best athletes, many of the German athletes wore Dassler shoes.
But so did track and field star Jesse Owens, who was black and American. His presence at the games was a slap in the face to Hitler's ideas about race. Even so, both Germans and Americans liked Owens, and Adi Dassler was able to persuade him to wear the company's spiked shoes to his medal ceremony. Even though the shoes were German, they were shown to more people after the war, which helped them get into markets of the Allies.
How much did the Dassler brothers love the Nazis?
Smit says that Rudolf believed in Nazi ideas more strongly than Adi, but both brothers carried their membership cards and signed their letters with "Heil Hitler."
During the war, the shoe factories of the brothers were turned into factories that made weapons for the Nazi army. (Other German shoemakers used forced laborers in concentration camps to try out their shoes.) Rudolf was asked to join the war effort, but he went AWOL to keep his brother from taking over the company. He thought that his brother was plotting against him.
Der Spiegel says that in April 1945, some American troops were about to blow up the Herzogenaurach factory, where some forced laborers worked, but Adi's wife Kathe stopped them and told them that the building was only being used to make sneakers. It did work.
The factory was saved, and when the U.S. Air Force took over the Nazis' Herzogenaurauch air base, American troops who liked Jesse Owens bought Dassler shoes and helped spread the word about the company back home.
What did Adidas do after World War II?
Ironically, the end of World War II was just the beginning of the fight between the Dassler brothers, who each tried to take over the other's shoe empire with the help of their wives.
When Germany was trying to get rid of its Nazi past after World War II, the Allies made the town of Herzogenaurach, including, presumably, the Dasslers and the workers at their factory, watch a documentary about the terrible things that happened to Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Rudolf was also arrested because the Gestapo thought he was giving them information. He was sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp for a short time because of his work on the front lines, but he was released a year later because there were so many cases against POWs.
Adi, on the other hand, was accused of actively helping and supporting the Nazis during the war, but he was able to put together a file of people, including the town's mayor, who said he was not a party member.
Smit says that one of Adi's claims is that he kept doing business with Jewish leather traders long after many other Germans stopped. He also found a mayor from a nearby town who said he was half-Jewish and that Dassler had given him shelter on his land as the war was coming to an end.
Rudolf and Adi's relationship ended for good in 1949, which led Adi to start his own company, Adidas, and Rudolf to start a competing company, Puma. Both companies' headquarters are still in Herzogenaurach, and people in the town still have very different feelings about which brand to support (though Adidas, currently the No. 2 global sportswear company behind Nike, seems to have come out ahead).
What is Adidas's current relationship with Jews?
The company calls Adolf Dassler its "founding father," but it doesn't say much about the Nazi ties of its founders. On its website, Adidas's official history says that the years before 1949 were "only the beginning of our story." There is no mention of Nazis or Owens.
Since the war, Jewish athletes have worked for the company for many years. Mark Spitz, an American Jewish Olympic swimmer, was asked by Adidas to bring a pair of their shoes to the podium with him when he won his gold medal in 1972. And last year, a haredi Orthodox marathon runner was at the center of a campaign by Adidas Israel.
Adidas has also gotten involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from time to time. Arab countries boycotted the company in 2012 because it supported the Jerusalem Marathon, which went through disputed territory. And in 2018, the company stopped sponsoring the Israel Football Association. This was a win for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement because the Israel Football Association had teams from Israeli settlements. (Puma became the new sponsor.)
JTA asked Adidas for comment on this story, but they didn't answer.
So, what now?
The deal between Adidas and West has been going on for almost a decade and is very profitable. The Washington Post says that his Yeezy line of shoes and other products brought the company about $2 billion in sales last year, which was about 10% of its total sales. (West had a deal with Nike before, but he wasn't happy with it.)
Even though many companies have joined the "corporate social responsibility" movement in the wake of the racial justice protests of 2020, Josh Hunt, author of "University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education," says it's hard to believe that companies like Adidas have a sense of social responsibility.
"Sneaker companies have no morals, just like any other business," Hunt told JTA. "They will keep doing bad things until they stop making money, whether that means taking advantage of forced labor in Xinjiang or working with Nazis."
But Jews also love shoes. Rabbi Yol Mendel is a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who lives in Paris and goes by the online name "Rabbi Sneakers." He is one of the most well-known Jewish sneakerheads.
Mendel uses sneakers to teach Torah on his Instagram page. He also shows off a lot of shoes and kippahs with sports themes, including a lot of Adidas gear. (He liked that he could wear one pair of leather-free Adidas shoes on Yom Kippur.)
Mendel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "What can I say?" "They make great shoes that are easy to walk in."