Birnbaum, Protagonist of Nationalism, Dead at 72
Menu JTA Search

Birnbaum, Protagonist of Nationalism, Dead at 72

Download PDF for this date

Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, writer, scholar and a leader and theorist of several important Jewish nationalist and cultural movements, died last night in Scheveningen following a long illness. He would have been 73 years old April 25.

He founded a movement which became the backbone of Dr. Theodor Herzl’s Zionism and served the Zionist movement for some twenty years. In 1903 he left the Zionist ranks because of a difference of policy and started a movement for Jewish national autonomy in Galicia, a practical application of Simeon Dubnow’s “Diaspora nationalism.”

To each of the movements he contributed a term. It was he who first used the world “Zionism” in its modern connotation, and he is credited with having devised the term “Ostjuden,” or Eastern European Jews, to cover the Polish, Russian, Rumanian and other Jews in that portion of Europe.

Finally, dissatisfied and saddened by the World War, Dr. Birnbaum became intensely religious and for a time acted as secretary of the extreme orthodox Agudath Israel. He adopted the pseudonym, “Mathias Acher.”

Born in Vienna, he received a Jewish education and attended the gymnasium. Entering the University of Vienna he first concentrated on oriental languages, but later turned to law and was graduated in 1887 with the degree Doctor of Jurisprudence. He practiced law for four years and then dropped it to devote himself to social and political work.

In 1883 Birnbaum founded the Vienna “Kadimah,” starting among university students a new and belligerent Jewish nationalism. When Dr. Herzl became the leader of the movement for re-establishment of the Jewish homeland in Palestine, he found in the Kadimah a nucleus for his organization.

In the advancement of his nationalistic theories, Dr. Birnbaum began publication in 1884 of “Self-Emancipation,” a bi-weekly periodical, later edited a monthly publication, “Zion,” in Berlin and in 1896 published a book, “National Rebirth.” He was elected secretary of the first Zionist Actions Committee in 1897.


Around the turn of the century, however, he began to become critical of Zionist policy, particularly of Dr. Herzl’s international “diplomacy” in behalf of the movement. He opposed the obsolete negation of the “Galuth,” or Diaspora, which was then a part of the Zionist program.

Finally, in 1903, he left the Zionist ranks and started a movement for Jewish national autonomy in Galicia, then a part of Austro-Hungary. He was a candidate in 1907 for the Reichsrat on his Jewish National Program in the Buczac district, but failed of election.

Dr. Birnbaum, in espousing the movement for Jewish autonomy, put into practical effect some of Dubnow’s philosophy of “Diaspora nationalism,” and became the prime advocate of Yiddish among East European Jewish peoples. This agitation has had a marked influence on Jewish thought everywhere.

Dr. Birnbaum visited the United States twice. In 1908 he went there in support of the movement for greater use of Yiddish and to obtain aid for the Yiddish language conference held in Czernowitz, Rumania, in that year. He visited the United States again in 1921 in behalf of the Agudath Israel.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund