Breitscheid, the son of a bookshop manager, was born in Cologne. He studied at a Gymnasium (an academically-oriented secondary school) in Cologne. From 1894 to 1898 he studied Economics at the Universities of Munich and Marburg; in 1898 he obtained his doctorate with a dissertation entitled "Land Policy in the Australian Colonies." From 1898 to 1905, he worked as an editor and correspondent for newspapers with a middle-class, Liberal outlook.
Between 1903 and 1908, Breitscheid was a member of the Free-minded Union. In 1908, he numbered among the founding members of the left-liberal Democratic Union (DV) and, until the Reichstag elections of 1912, served as its chair.
After the DV founded in the 1912 elections, Breitscheid joined the SPD, switching five years later to the more leftist splinter faction, the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party). During the years of the First World War, he was the SPD faction's spokesman for foreign policy, as well as member of the German delegation to the League of Nations. After Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 Breitscheid and all members of the SPD present voted against the Enabling Act of 1933. Especially Breitscheid and Otto Wels were singled out later by Konstantin von Neurath as example that acts of terror against different minded persons are a "calumny". He emigrated to France by way of Switzerland, with the help of Alfred Faust.
There, efforts were undertaken by the Refugee Committee, under Varian Fry, to get him out of Vichy France, along with Rudolf Hilferding. These efforts were not successful, and in 1941, approximately a year into the German occupation of France, he was arrested by the Gestapo and interned in the Buchenwald concentration camp. The precise details of Breitscheid's last years are known only sketchily. According to the historian Nikolaus Wachsmann he died by friendly fire during an Allied air raid on 24 August 1944. Varian Fry instead believed that Breitscheid was murdered by the Gestapo on the orders of Hitler or another senior Nazi Party official. He is buried in the Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery in the borough of Lichtenberg in Berlin.
Today, a plaza in the centre of Berlin is named after Breitscheid, while in Oberhof, Kaiserslautern, Potsdam, Leverkusen, and Dresden, as well other parts of eastern Germany, there are streets bearing his name.
Some of the streets named after him in eastern Germany have, since 1989, been renamed.
- Sees Rebirth of War Time Propaganda, Berlin 1933-03-26. St. Joseph Gazette, St. Joseph, Missouri, 1933-03-27.
- Wachsmann, Nikolaus (2015). Kl: a history of the Nazi concentration camps. New York: Macmillan. p. 586. ISBN 978-142994372-7.
- "Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde" (in German). Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt.
- Leverkusen, Rudolf-Breitscheid-Str. at www.leverkusen.com