Nathan Birnbaum was born in Vienna and lived there from 1864 to 1908 and from 1914 to 1921. In 1882, together with two other students at 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.
He gradually abandoned his materialistic and secular outlook in the years preceding World War I, 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 raise 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 to 1914 and from 1921 to 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.