Revisiting WWII, or When Adidas Made Bazookas

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 2/12/2012 11:27:00 AM
This coming week I am going to discuss European economic integration in class. As most of you can recite from memory, the European Union got its start as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) back in 1952. However, the political logic of the ECSC is a bit more obscure. While you will appreciate the necessity of rebuilding an industrial base in Europe post-WWII, the political story is a bit more involved.

You see, the French had a recurring fear of postwar German reconstruction coming in the form of re-industrialization. A number of conditions laid down on Germany after WWI concerned limiting its re-industrialization to prevent its re-militarization. Looking back, the French were to their dismay proven correct when the Nationalist Socialist party came into power and sped up the reformation of the German industrial machine. So, after WWII, the French had similar apprehensions about German re-industrialization. The solution, of course, was jointly administering the system by which key inputs--coking coal and iron ore--were distributed at the heart of Europe. That is, in exchange for Germany being allowed to (peacefully) re-industrialize, the erstwhile victor, France, would gain a veto power over resources if they perceived they were being requisitioned for military purposes.

Which brings me to the history of famous German brands. While they are today among the most coveted and recognizable in the world, their Nazi-era past is often forgotten (and thankfully so). Hugo Boss wasn't making designer duds but Nazi uniforms. BMW was building aeroplane engines for Luftwaffe bombers and fighters--hence the propeller logo. Hitler initiated the people's car project that is today's largest auto empire. Ferdinand Porsche helped design Panzer and Tiger tanks that dominated land-based conflict in the early going. And so on and so forth.

As WWII dragged on, many other manufacturers in unrelated lines of business started contributing to the war machine. While looking around, I came across a Der Spiegel article that explains how the brothers Dassler--Adi Dassler (Adidas) and Rudolf Dassler (Puma) were made to make highly effective anti-tank bazookas [!] The same factory that made the shoes Jesse Owens wore at the 1936 Munich Olympics to wide acclaim was making anti-tank weapons by 1944:
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.
With Germany well on the losing side already, a crude yet effective weapon was made:
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...

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.
Fortunately for the Allies, the effective tank killer from the shoe factory came too little, too late:
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."
It's doubly good fortune for the brothers Dassler that the Yanks who went to the factory were duped into believing that they didn't contribute to the war effort but had in fact made Owens' shoes:
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, K├Ąthe, 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.
It's very interesting stuff, and certainly worth more than a footnote to European history. Indeed, similar concerns would reappear about German dominance leading to military adventurism in the aftermath of German reunification post-1989. How did they deal with that possibility? For better or worse, the Maastricht Treaty is offered up as an even more elaborate mechanism to bind German interests to those of Europe in general.