Nathan Birnbaum was born in Vienna,
and lived there from.1864-1908, and again from 1914-21. In 1882, together
with two other students in the University of Vienna, he founded “Kadimah,”
the first organization of Jewish nationalist students in the West. In
1884, he published his first pamphlet, Die Assimilationsucht (“The Assimilation Disease/Mania”). He founded, published
and edited Selbst-Emancipation! (“Self-Emancipation!”)
(1884-1894), a periodical promoting “the idea of a Jewish renaissance
and the resettlement of Palestine,” which incorporated and developed
the ideas of Leon Pinsker.
In 1890, Birnbaum coined the terms “Zionist”
and “Zionism,” and, in 1892, “Political
Zionism.” In 1893, he published a brochure entitled Die
Nationale Wiedergeburt des Juedischen Volkes in seinem Lande
als Mittel zur Loesung der Judenfrage (“The National Rebirth
of the Jewish People in its Homeland as a Means of Solving the Jewish
Question”), in which he expounded ideas similar to those that Herzl was to promote subsequently.
Birnbaum played a prominent part in the First
Zionist Congress (1897) and was elected Secretary General of the
Zionist Organization. However, he and Herzl developed ideological differences. Birnbaum had begun to question the
political aims of Zionism and to attach increasing importance to the
national-cultural content of Judaism.
Birnbaum eventually left the Zionist movement and later
became a leading spokesman for Jewish cultural autonomy in the Diaspora.
He stressed the Yiddish language as the basis of Ashkenazi Jewish culture and was chief convenor of the Conference on Yiddish held
in Czernowitz, Bukovina, in 1908. This was attended by leading Yiddish
writers, and proclaimed Yiddish as a national Jewish language. Birnbaum
propagated his ideas in writing and by lecturing in many Jewish communities.
In the years preceding World War I he gradually abandoned
his materialistic and secular outlook, eventually embracing full traditional
Judaism. He may be seen as the forerunner of the modern Baal
Teshuvah movement. His most famous book of this period was Gottesvolk (“God’s People”) first published in German and Yiddish
in 1917 (translated into English in a shortened form by J. Elias in
1947 titled "Confession"). In 1919, he became the first Secretary
General of the new Agudath Yisrael Organization.
Dissatisfied with the spiritual complacency of the
religious masses, he initiated a movement, the Order of the Olim (“[Spiritual]
Ascenders”), to consist of small groups of people dedicated by
their way of living to raising spiritual awareness within the larger
Jewish society, thus leading toward a Jewish spiritual renaissance.
(See Divrei Ha-Olim: “The words of the Olim,” 1918,
in Hebrew, Yiddish and German). Disturbed by the urbanized focus of
Jewish life, he promoted the establishment of agricultural communities
and other groups living a style of Jewish life more in conformity with
nature. Settlement in Eretz Israel was to be for the prime purpose of
fulfilling the spiritual role of the Jewish people. (See Im Dienste
der Verheissung: “In the Service of the Promise,” 1927).
He lived in Berlin from 1912-1914, and again from 1921-1933. After the rise of Nazism,
he left Germany for Scheveningen, Netherlands,
where he edited Der Ruf ("The Call"), a platform for
his ideas. He died there in 1937.