Nathan Birnbaum was born May 16, 1864 in Vienna. Birnbaum was raised in an observant Jewish home in Vienna to a family who came from the eastern provinces of the Austrian Empire.
As a teenager he turned away from religion and toward the brand new discussions of Jews as a nation whose national homeland was Palestine and, in his 20s, Birnbaum helped launch the journal ‘Selbstemanzipation’ (Self-Emancipation), in which he is credited with having coined the term “Zionism.”
He participated in the First Zionist Congress in 1897, but already by this time he was beginning to identify more with cultural, rather than political, Zionism.
In 1898, Birnbaum formally withdrew from the World Zionist Organization. He later wrote of his break with Zionism: “It is arbitrary to regard all cultural beginnings in the Golus [Diaspora] simply as valuable cultural manure for just one potential culture on a soil which is not yet ours.” In considering Eastern European Jewry he noted:
“I found them to be a people with all the signs of a living, separate nation, it became more and more clear to me that a nation that already exists does not have to be created again…thus I developed Golus-Nationalism”
Though Birnbaum was a native German speaker and did not learn Yiddish until later in life, he began to advocate for Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish people and played a central role in organizing the historic Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference in 1908. He was also an active and influential political advocate for the rights of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As Birnbaum grew older and more engaged with Eastern European Jewish life, he reconnected with the observant Judaism of his childhood, eventually distancing himself from his secular Yiddishist activity just as he had earlier from Zionism. In 1919 he became the first General Secretary of the Agudas Yisroel party. In 1933 Birnbaum was forced to flee Berlin, where he had lived for 20 years. He died in 1937 in The Hague.