Manfred Woerner, the first German to be named to the highest civilian post of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, died Saturday at his home in Brussels, Belgium. He was 59.
The cause was cancer, a spokesman said.Woerner, born in Stuttgart on Sept. 24, 1934, was committed to the idea that European and North American security were inseparable and was involved in military policy issues for most of his life. He volunteered in the West German armed forces and eventually earned the wings of a fully qualified jet fighter pilot while serving as a member of parliament in Bonn from the mid-1960s.
Woerner, who spoke fluent English and French, succeeded Lord Carrington of Britain as NATO secretary general in July 1988 after serving as German defense minister for six years. His popularity among the allies at NATO headquarters in Brussels and strong political backing from Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Bonn led the allies to extend his tenure twice, until June of 1996.
But in April of 1992 he underwent the first of three major operations for intestinal cancer. Jogging and hiking had kept him trim, but by the end of 1993 he had wasted away so much that he began talking openly about his illness, joking that his doctors had put him on a "delicious" diet of carrot juice, rice and vegetables instead of a heartier diet of meat, potatoes and wines.
As for his appearance, he said, he was like the alliance he headed: "leaner and meaner."
His pallor and a slight trembling of the hands at times showed that the struggle was not easy. But after an operation in mid-December, he told NATO representatives on the eve of the alliance's summit meeting in January that he believed he had beaten the cancer.
A week after the meeting, he was operated on again, in a German hospital just across the Belgian border in Aachen for acute intestinal blockage.
Woerner began his political career as a young lawyer in the state legislature of his native Baden-Wuerttemberg. He had studied law in Heidelberg, Paris, Munich and finally Stuttgart, obtaining a doctorate of laws there in 1961 after writing a dissertation on the criminal prosecutability of military forces stationed in friendly countries.
A member of the Christian Democratic Union Party since 1956, he won a seat in the Bonn parliament in 1965, quickly making a name for himself as a military expert and joining an air force fighter squadron to earn his wings the following year.
Eventually he became a lieutenant colonel of the German air reserve with more than 1,200 hours flying time.
With the Christian Democrats in opposition during the 1970s, Woerner served as their chief military spokesman and became a member of the national leadership of the party.
He had no difficulty working with the Social Democratic defense minister of the time, Georg Leber, and when the Christian Democrats made gains in the 1976 national elections, he became chairman of the defense committee in parliament.