Erich Kuttner was born on 27 May 1887 on Nollendorfplatz square in Schöneberg outside Berlin, the son of a merchant, Bernhard Kuttner, and his wife Charlotte. He completed his schooling at the Königliche Wilhelms Gymnasium in Tiergarten (popularly known as the ‘shiny boots school’) with the “Abitur” leaving certificate. He studied law and in 1909 became a trainee lawyer at the Berlin Court of Appeal. At around the same time, he became involved in the liberal left-wing party Democratic Union (“Demokratische Vereinigung”, DV) and gained his first experience of journalism working for the DV party weekly “Das freie Volk”. The continuing conflict this generated with his employer at the Court of Appeal caused him to abandon his plans for a career in the legal profession. A few months later, on 3 May 1911, he made another decisive break in his life by leaving the Jewish community. The rate of young men leaving the Jewish community – often to convert to Christianity – was particularly high around this time.
Following the Democratic Union’s disastrous results at the parliamentary elections in 1912, Kuttner went over to the SPD. He published his first independent work, the pamphlet “Klassenjustiz!” (‘Class Justice!’), in 1913. From July of that year he held his first permanent position, working for the newspaper “Volksstimme”, published in Chemnitz. He served as a soldier in World War I in France, Belgium and Russia. In 1916 he sustained a severe injury to his left arm and could not be returned to the front. He became editor of the newspaper “Vorwärts” (1916-1922) and co-founded the aid organization ‘Imperial Association of War Veterans and War Wounded’ (“Reichsbund der Kriegsbeschädigten und ehemaligen Kriegsteilnehmer”).
When the Spartacus uprising broke out in January 1919, Kuttner fought on the side of the new republic as a member of the government’s protection force and shot a man. Although charges against him were dropped, the prosecutor accepting that he acted in self-defence, Kuttner’s political opponents persisted on referring to the incident and denounced him as a ‘worker murderer’. Between 1919 and 1933, Kuttner instituted a total of nine proceedings for defamation of character and slander, each of which he won.
In 1921 he became one of the youngest people to represent the SPD in the Prussian parliament, which he was a member of until 1933. In 1920 he published a satirical booklet of poems, “Die erdolchte Front” (‘The Stabbed Front’), in response to the Kapp Putsch, in which he laid the blame for Germany’s defeat in the war on the officers, whom he contrasted with the valiant German people. From 1922 he was secretary of the socialist political and literary weekly “Die Glocke” and from 1924 editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine “Lachen Links”.
In parliamentary debates he criticized the growing Nazi Party presence and especially Joseph Goebbels, who he repeatedly accused of having avoided service in the First World War and hence of acting unpatriotically. In return, Kuttner was insulted on account of his background. In the session of 22 June 1932, for example, he was accused of being a ‘Jew-boy of the most unscrupulous sort’. Seeking to actively fight anti-Semitism, he became a member of the circle of Jewish, formerly Jewish and non-Jewish Social Democrats and of the ‘Imperial Association of Jewish Frontline Soldiers’ (“Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten”).
Although the state parliament was unconstitutionally dissolved shortly after the Nazis came to power on 6 February 1933, new elections to the Prussian parliament were held against all the odds on 5 March. Kuttner stood for re-election and was arrested. He gained a foretaste of the events to come when he was detained for three hours on the day of the elections. He and his non-Jewish wife Frieda had already arranged the separation of their property in mid-February and now took further precautions, moving to Schöneberg on 24 March. There are no traces of their movements between late March and early May but some indications that Kuttner was taken into “protective custody” again. He also seems to have gone underground for a time. He had been a member of a committee set up to prepare the SPD for operating underground since the Reichstag fire.
The ban on trade unions finally prompted Kuttner to leave Germany. He fled to the Netherlands on 10 May 1933. His wife joined him there a short time later. In late July, they moved into an apartment in Amsterdam-Zuid. Kuttner worked as a journalist and wrote commentaries, poems and satires on subjects such as the Reichstag fire trial for Social Democrat exile newspapers. His work was hindered, however, when the Dutch minister of justice issued a ban on refugees engaging in political activities in July 1933.
From spring 1935, Kuttner became increasingly involved in the debate surrounding the SPD’s relation to the communists and the formation of a united people’s front. He co-founded the Amsterdam section of the ‘German Revolutionary Socialists’ (“Revolutionären Sozialisten Deutschlands”, RSD), which unlike the executive of the SPD in exile in Prague (“SoPaDe”) was in favour of cross-party cooperation in the fight against Fascism.
In 1936 he worked as a correspondent in Spain and fought in the Spanish civil war on the side of the International Brigades. Shortly after his return to the Netherlands, he discovered that he had been stripped of his German citizenship.
On 10 May 1940 the German Army invaded the Netherlands. Four days later, Erich and Frieda Kuttner attempted suicide.
From January 1941, Erich Kuttner received seven guilders financial aid per week from the Jewish refugee aid committee “Comité voor Joodsche Vluchtelingen”, (CJV). On 12 March 1941 he rejoined the Jewish religious community.
On 10 April 1942, Erich Kuttner was arrested and, in late September 1942, deported to Mauthausen concentration camp. There, he was shot ‘attempting to escape’ on 6 October 1942.
Frieda Kuttner died in poverty in the Netherlands on 1 January 1948 following a long illness.