Synonymous in the culture of American footwear—or maybe just the kind of footwear I can’t go a day without seeing—are shoes like Air Force Ones, Nike Dunks, Doc Martens. The influence of these shoes is worldwide. They almost seem to be standard issue, especially amongst the youth, as if high-schoolers and those all the way through college have no other choice but to throw on a dirty, creased, and liquor-splattered pair of these shoes because it’s what everyone else is wearing.
However, I argue that the most popular shoe isn’t a shoe at all. It’s a sandal made out of cork and latex, strapped together with leather bindings and sold for upwards of $100. The most popular piece of footwear in America and perhaps the world is intended to aid those suffering from plantar fasciitis, for those with high-arches or chronic foot pain. They’re the product of a German cobbler dating as far back as 1774, a family by the name of Birkenstock who pioneered innovative methods of footwear concepts and understanding. We all know how influential some Germans can be when bringing new ways of thinking to the masses, and the Birkenstocks were no different, spreading their belief system of absolute foot comfort to the entire world.
The Birkenstock we see today is the byproduct of over two hundred years of podiatric innovation. Could something so simple looking, a sandal that resembles something so comfortable and forgiving that Jesus Christ himself may have slid into them when he had to venture out into the desert, be the most complex piece of footwear in history? Are we wearing them for all the wrong reasons?
No. And Yes. Respectively.
Back in 1896, the Birkenstock’s focus wasn’t on their patented sandal, but on making a flexible footbed. This year was near the end of the Victorian Era in Britain. All across Europe and in America as well, there was a massive growth in industrialization. More production, more factories, more cheap labor brutalized by the upper class. This definitely meant more people standing on their feet all day. Konrad Birkenstock perfected his craft at an opportune time. He quickly began to produce and sell his insoles to the growing masses, aiding those workers who were quickly helping Germany’s economy grow into a world superpower, a world colossus capable of starting a world war or two. Birkenstock’s products flourished in a world that was reforming, shifting governments, the kind of world trifled with instability in many places, but not the soles of their feet.
That’s enough history. Maybe. Listing out dates and using words like industrialization is not what I ever intend to write about. But, I suppose, when speaking of Germany, you have to discuss the German empire’s authoritarianism which, along with World War I, was a catalyst for the country’s revolution and transition to the Weimar Republic, a form of government focused on social freedoms that was subsequently disrupted by more political turmoil, leading to the rise of the Nazi Party, their terrible reign of power, and somehow relate it to shoe insoles and Birkenstock sandals.
Yeah, it’s a lot.
I’m not making any accusations about Birkenstock and their brand. All I would like to point out is that there is a decent-sized gap regarding Birkenstock’s history between the years of 1932 and 1963. Birkenstock and the systems they developed for footwear design were groundbreaking. They were snuffed out as so many others were during this time period. Regardless, it is safe to assume a lot of Nazi’s had issues with their feet and wore Birkenstock insoles. Maybe even the little man himself, that evil, tortured excuse of a human with a terrible mustache slid into something Birkenstock made.
Maybe Hitler wore Birkenstocks.
Again, this is in no way condemning the Birkenstock brand, there isn’t much a company who produces insoles can do when their native country is in the midst of two world wars and committing genocide.
Birkenstock isn’t at fault. It’s those who wear Birkenstock.
Everyone isn’t wearing Birkenstocks for the wrong reasons. Many people have many different kinds of foot issues and who is anyone to judge someone’s high arch? Is it easy to see the flat-footed person who simply can’t fit their club-like foot into anything other than the leather restraints of a Birkenstock?
The issue lies within the popularity of the sandal. The widespread obsession with wearing something everyone else has on their feet. Being a part of the crowd. Following the herd blindly, without asking any questions about what exactly they’re wearing. Perhaps the Nazis did the same thing, even though the Birkenstock sandal known in our culture now was just a footbed then. Nazis couldn’t wear sandals, but one could only assume if Birkenstock managed to develop their innovative piece of footwear earlier in history, those horrible, blonde-haired and blue-eyed pieces of shit would’ve worn them too. They would’ve followed blindly as we have.
The point is, people need to understand the complex history of what they have on their feet. Birkenstocks have proliferated at an incredible rate and they’ve been commercialized towards a generation that ignores the past. Why buy without asking questions? One look at a Birkenstock sandal and it’s easy to see there’s much more beneath the leather surface. Those sandals have a beautiful and brutal story—plantar fasciitis, industrialization, Nazis— and now they’re worn with reckless abandon by those wealthy enough to buy them, those affluent souls without any sort of problem with their feet.
The next time you see someone wearing a pair of Birkenstocks, know that what they’re wearing was at one point much more than cork, latex, and leather. It was more than a $100 statement of someone’s commitment to be comfortable. It was innovative and still is. It helped many through the industrial revolution that shaped our world into the one we live in. Sure, maybe a Nazi or two or thousands wore their product, but that’s fine. Push that nugget of information into the back of your brain, where it can’t hurt you anymore.