The march toward German reunification eased up this week.

In an apparent effort to soften the jackboot image of its armed forces, Defense Minister Rainer Eppelmann has abolished the goose step in the East German Army. It's out of step with the country's new democratic ways, he said.

His decision can't have been easy. The goose step is to East Germans (Prussians in particular) what the waltz is to the Viennese: They may not have invented it, but they sure made it memorable.

Actually, the goose step long predates its Nazification in Germany 50 years ago and may, in fact, have been practiced by the legions of ancient Rome. As an aspect of close-order drill, it was designed to display and promote the sort of unity and discipline that encourages soldiers to shoot and burn what they're told without asking a lot of troublesome questions.

Even in the 1930s, Mussolini, with visions of recaptured Roman glory dancing in his extraordinarily bald head, had his legions goose-stepping before Hitler's were.

As Nazi Germany demonstrated rather convincingly, it is almost impossible to think while goose-stepping, so great is the concentration required for the maneuver. Thus a goose-stepping army has rarely, if ever, been the instrument of a popularly elected government. In the postwar world the goose step has lived on principally in the parades of Eastern Bloc countries and in imitative regimes in Africa.

Will the East German goose step be missed or mourned?

Look to the summer Olympics of 1992. If East Germany falters, perhaps at last will be bared the secret of the seemingly inexplicable dominance of that country's Olympic athletes, feverishly driven men and women with curiously muscular legs.