As a lieutenant of infantry he was badly wounded on the third day of the attack on Poland in 1939. He was wounded on two further occasions. In January 1945 as a major, he was awarded the knight's cross for holding the front and thereby helping 10,000 East Prussian civilians and wounded escape the advancing Red Army. A little later he managed to get the survivors of the 102 Silesian Infantry Division, about 4,000 men, to the relative safety of being prisoners of war of the British.
Born in 1916 in Gross-Strehlitz, Upper Silesia, later part of Poland, he was brought up on tales of military chivalry and deeds of daring. Like many of his generation and class he was an admirer of the flyer Manfred von Richthofen. His father, Maximilian Mende, was the director of a secondary school and, as was usual among Catholics, a supporter of the Centre Party.
However, he brought up Erich to be "Deutschnational", that is, a German nationalist of the kind more often found among German Protestants. After the Nazis gained power in 1933, Mende gave up the Catholic youth movement to join the Hitler Youth. On graduating from grammar school in 1936 he decided to become a professional soldier and enlisted in the 84th Infantry Regiment at Gleiwitz, on the German-Polish frontier.
On his release from British custody, Mende took up the study of law and political science at Cologne University, gaining his doctorate in 1949. He also helped to found the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in 1945.
His party was the most freemarket-orientated of the three main German parties, and the most nationalistic. It also had an element that favoured links with Russia/the Soviet Union. It was a party predominantly of the Protestant professional classes, big business, and Protestant farmers in Catholic areas. It was perhaps an advantage for the party to have Mende, a Catholic and ex-officer, as Catholics made up a far higher percentage of the electorate in West Germany than they had in undivided Germany before 1945.
Mende's considerable charm, good looks and self-confidence were also of great help in his new career. He was elected to the Bundestag in 1949 and rose swiftly through the ranks of his party. By 1960 he was national chairman of FDP. He held this post until 1968.
As a member of parliament Mende worked tirelessly on behalf of former soldiers, those who were released after lengthy captivity (the so-called Spatheimkehrer), and those condemned as war criminals. He took a rather conservative, traditionalist view of how the new German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, should be structured, trained and indoctrinated. At the same time he favoured contacts with the Soviet Union.
He was something of a thorn in Konrad Adenauer's side. Adenauer's Christian Democrats were the main government party with which the FDP was in coalition. After the FDP increased its vote in September 1961, in the wake of the building of the Berlin Wall (August 1961), Mende urged his party not to join Adenauer in another coalition. The FDP did not take his advice. He refused to take office, only changing his position once Ludwig Erhard had replaced Adenauer as Chancellor in 1963.
Under Erhard Mende served as Vice-Chancellor (deputy head of government) and Minister for All-German Affairs. His task was to promote relations with Communist East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, not then recognised by the West Germans. During his period of office West Berliners were permitted, for the first time, to cross the Wall for Christmas visits in December 1963. From 1964, East German senior citizens were allowed to visit West Germany.
Mende inaugurated agreements on road building, especially on the autobahn near Hof to facilitate better communications with West Berlin. Also during his time in office over 4,000 political prisoners held in East German prisons were "bought free" by West Germany.
The FDP lost office in 1966 with the fall of Erhard. His successor at the head of the Christian Democrats, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, decided on a coalition with the main opposition party, the Social Democrats of Willy Brandt. In opposition Mende turned his attention to his finances and worked as representative of the American international investment bank, IOS. His party veered to the left and he was replaced in January 1968 by Walter Scheel.
In the following year the FDP became the junior partner in Brandt's SPD- FDP mini-coalition. Frustrated both personally and politically Mende left the FDP in 1970 and joined the Christian Democrats in opposition. His defection did not have much impact on the coalition or his party's fortunes. He failed to make much impact in the ranks of the Christian Democrats.
Erich Mende was married twice. His second wife, the young war widow Margot Hansen, he met in 1947 at an FDP meeting. They married a year later. Margot Mende played an active role in her husband's career.
Erich Mende, politician: born Gross-Strehlitz, Germany 28 October 1916; Chairman, FDP 1960-68; Vice-Chancellor of West Germany 1963-66; married first Ruth Mautschke (one son; marriage dissolved), secondly Margot Hansen (nee Hattje; two sons, one daughter); died Bonn 6 May 1998.