Nahum Goldmann was born in Vishnevo, Belarus, in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire. The archives of this shtetl were destroyed and Nahum Goldmann's exact date of birth is unknown, although it is cited as July 10 in 1894 or 1895. Goldmann himself celebrated it both ways. He lived in Vishnevo with his grandparents for six years until moving to Frankfurt to live with his parents. Goldmann’s parents and family friends were Zionists and intellectuals, which resulted in Goldmann himself growing up as a Zionist. He began making public speeches and publishing articles at age fourteen, and in 1911 he attended his first Zionist congress with his father, who was a delegate. Goldmann’s first book, Eretz Israel: Reisebriefe aus Palästina, was published after he visited Palestine in 1913. During World War I, in between studying philosophy and law at Heidelberg and Marburg universities, Goldmann worked for the Jewish Affairs department in the Propaganda Division of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although he had little influence in the government, he actively lobbied for the Jewish communities of the diaspora. After the war he returned to Heidelberg to finish his studies and decided to found Freie Zionistische Blätter, an independent Zionist periodical, with his friend Jacob Klatzkin. A lack of resources meant that this venture did not last long, and Goldmann worked for his uncle's newspaper for a while before returning to Berlin in 1923 to launch the Encyclopaedia Judaica, also with Klatzkin. Hitler’s rise to power prevented this project from being fully completed, although ten volumes in German, and two in Hebrew, were published. Goldmann became active in political and organization work while in Berlin, and participated in Zionist Congresses as a representative of the Radical Party (until it dissolved in 1933, after which he did not belong to any party). In the late 1920s he developed an interest in foreign policy and became a member of the Political Committee of the Zionist General Council. Goldmann was well acquainted with many important Zionist figures, and his first visit to the U.S. in 1931 expanded his circle to include important American Zionists such as Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise.
In 1933 Goldmann left Germany and narrowly avoided arrest by the Nazis, although his papers were seized and later destroyed. The following year he married Alice Gottschalk, and his sons Michael and Guido were born in 1935 and 1937. Goldmann lived in Geneva from 1933-1940, participating in Zionist politics and working to defend the Jewish minorities of Europe from the Nazi regime. He became head of the Comité des Delegation Juives in 1933 and the representative of the Jewish Agency to the League of Nations in 1935. In 1936 Goldmann helped Stephen Wise found the World Jewish Congress. In 1940 he moved his family to America and worked for the Zionist Executive, focusing on aiding Jewish refugees. All along Goldmann continued his endeavors in Zionist politics, advocating for the (failed) first partition plan in 1937, and working to overcome resistance from both within the Jewish community and from the British. In 1946 Goldmann presented his argument for a modified version of the Morrison-Grady partition plan to the Executive of the Jewish Agency and was reluctantly allowed to undertake a diplomatic mission to gain the endorsement of the American government. Although he did not gain an official endorsement, Goldmann’s efforts contributed to a stabilization of British-Zionist relations in the time leading up to the adoption of the partition plan by the U.N. General Assembly in 1947. Goldmann never participated in the national politics of Israel, and in fact had a relatively rocky relationship with the Israeli government. Goldmann’s criticism of its policies and his unsolicited actions concerning the foreign policy of Israel was the main cause of his clashes with the official Israeli leadership. Besides campaigning for peaceful coexistence with the Arabs, Goldmann promoted the idea of a strict and internationally recognized neutrality of the state of Israel.
In 1949 Goldmann became president of the World Jewish Congress, and in 1951 he co-founded the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference) and was chosen as its first chairman. Goldmann played a key role in the controversial and very difficult negotiations for reparations, which culminated in the Luxembourg Agreement in 1952. Goldmann continued his efforts to encourage the unity of the international Jewish community, helping to create the Conference of Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations in 1955 and the World Conference of Jewish Organizations in 1958. He was also president of the World Zionist Organization from 1956 until 1968. Goldmann believed in encouraging a healthy and well-connected Jewish diaspora, and sought intercommunication and cultural and civil rights as means to foster the Jewish identity of these communities. One such group that he focused on beginning in the mid-1950s was the Jewish population living in the Soviet Union.
In 1964 Goldmann left the United States, and although he was an Israeli citizen for a while, he lived the rest of his life in Europe and eventually adopted Swiss citizenship in 1968. Goldmann died in Bad Reichenhall, Germany on August 29, 1982.