Much of the TV footage used these days to shed light on the bizarre, hermetically sealed regime of North Korea features its massive army parading through the streets of Pyongyang in extremely tight-knit, highly synchronized marching formations. A prominent and chilling feature of these marches is the goose-step, in which thousands and thousands of troops kick their legs up like belligerent, robotic Rockettes. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il ("Dear Leader") is just the latest in a long line of vicious rulers whose soldiers have stepped the goose. Where and when did the goose-step originate, and why has it been so common among recent history's most sadistic tyrants?
Norman Davies, author of Europe: A History, traces the origins of the march back to the Prussian army in the 17th century. The body language of goose-stepping, he wrote,
transmitted a clear set of messages. To Prussia's generals, it said that the discipline and athleticism of their men would withstand all orders, no matter how painful or ludicrous. To Prussian civilians, it said that all insubordination would be ruthlessly crushed. To Prussia's enemies it said that the Prussian army was not made up just of lads in uniform, but regimented supermen. To the world at large, it announced that Prussia was not just strong, but arrogant.
The marching mode proved so effective that it became a prime feature of German and Prussian parades well into the 20th century. It was also adopted by the Russian army and later, after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, by the Red Army. Even after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, honor guards could still be seen goose-stepping around Lenin's tomb in Moscow. But for many people the step is most closely associated with the Nazis. Hitler believed that tighter bonds of solidarity could be achieved through gestures that demonstrated loyalty in a physical sense (the stiff-armed salute falls into this category, too).
George Orwell, who knew totalitarianism when he saw it, succinctly articulated the menacing nature of the goose-step in his wartime essay "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius" (1941). Sitting in Britain, while "highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me," he wrote:
One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. … The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is "Yes, I am ugly, and you daren't laugh at me." … Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.
North of the 38th parallel, Kim's vainglorious propaganda parades are clearly designed to evoke Hitler's gargantuan Nuremberg rallies of the 1920s and '30s. North Korea's sinister, macro-scaled, Vegas-on-acid shows—which involve incredibly choreographed mass games, acrobatic displays, and the aforementioned goose-stepping troops—top even the Nazis' efforts to visually convey the toxic grandeur of mass ideology.
Goose-step in action Goose-stepping is the ultimate tactical anachronism—yet another sign that Kim is stuck in the delusional global-domination schemes of yesteryear. Though he clearly intends his marches to be shows of prowess (and though he claims to have the nuclear weapons to back it up), the whole notion of conveying military might by way of a rigid march seems almost quaint in a world where smart weapons, special operations units, and state-of-the-art air forces are steadily supplanting large-scale ground forces.
And though the association between the goose-step and authoritarian regimes is permanently sealed in the collective cultural consciousness, the march today is mostly viewed as an obsolescent remnant of a maniacal past. "Since World War II," writes William McNeill, author of Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, "widespread revulsion against everything associated with the Nazis has discredited mass muscular manifestations of political attachments." Except in North Korea, apparently.
Where there isn't revulsion, there's humor. Years of sarcastic derision—both in the popular culture at large and by comedians such as Mel Brooks and ex-Monty Python cast member John Cleese—have ultimately relegated the goose-step to the realm of the ridiculous. In his short-lived but still beloved mid-'70s British sitcom Fawlty Towers, Cleese played Basil Fawlty, proprietor of a hotel where, in one classic episode, a group of Germans has come to stay. "Don't mention the war!" becomes Fawlty's ruling mantra as he tries to accommodate his guests. But of course he can't do anything but mention it, and at one point even finds himself goose-stepping around the dining room, turning a method of propaganda into a punch line.