Grimme was born in Goslar, Prussian Hanover, the son of Louise, née Sander (1858-1952) and Adolf Grimme (1854-1906), a train station master. In 1908, he began studying philosophy and German studies, attending universities in Halle, Munich and Göttingen. He was also involved in the free student reform movement. He finished, passing his state exams in philosophy in 1914. In 1922, he became a member of the SPD. He began teaching in 1924. He then became a senior teacher (Oberstudienrat) in Hannover and in 1925, he became the superintendent in Magdeburg. He became the assistant Minister at the Prussian Ministry of Culture, and a year later, the vice president of the provincial school council of Berlin and Mark Brandenburg. In 1930, he became the successor to Carl Heinrich Becker, serving as the last Culture Minister of a democratically elected state government in Prussia. He was removed from this position on July 20, 1932 when the state government was deposed in the Prussian coup.
Grimme belonged to the Covenant of Religious Socialists. In 1942, his house was searched because of his connections to the Red Orchestra and he was arrested by the Gestapo. In 1943, he was brought before the Reich court martial. A good defense strategy, which mainly consisted of ratting on his fellow Red Orchestra members, enabled him to avoid the death penalty facing him and he was sentenced to three years in a labor prison (Zuchthaus), condemned for "failure to report an attempt at high treason". The Gestapo failed to uncover his participation in the German Resistance as author of many fliers then in circulation. Under the Third Reich, the crime of Wehrkraftzersetzung was punishable by death. Grimme's prison term was spent at the prisons in Luckau and Fuhlsbüttel.
Although not given to revenge, on September 15, 1945, Grimme filed a complaint with the state's attorney against Manfred Roeder for his involvement condemning to death or imprisonment 49 members of the Red Orchestra, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans von Dohnanyi, Arvid Harnack and Günther Weisenborn.
Dated May 12, 1951, the final report by Hans-Jürgen Finck, Lüneburg state's attorney, about the investigation into the complaint filed by Grimme and other surviving Red Orchestra members came to the conclusion that the Reich court martial trials had been conducted "in accordance with the law" (ordnungsgemaß) and the defendants correctly sentenced to death. "The basis of the 'Red Orchestra'... was treason. Treason... has ever and in all ages been regarded as the most ignominous crime. ... Also the July 20 plot was in profound measure fueled by treason and espionage." The report further stated that the military opposition had "assumed... an enormous amount of guilt". Other German men disagreed with Hitler and the war, but nonetheless "did their duty as soldiers and in administration and the economy... [and] certainly would have rejected with outrage... being placed in the same league with men like Beck, Canaris, Oster [and] von Dohnanyi."
The case, also pursued by Weisenborn and Greta Kuckhoff, was delayed by the state's attorney in Lüneburg until the end of the 1960s, when it was dropped.
Grimme was a member of the postwar "appointed Landtag" organized by the British military government in their occupation zone. It existed for just a few months, from August 23, 1946, to December 8, 1946. After the British created the German state of Lower Saxony, he became a member of the appointed Landtag of Lower Saxony, which existed from December 8, 1946, to March 28, 1947. When the elections were held, he became a member of the first elected Landtag, later becoming the first Minister of Culture of Lower Saxony. On November 15, 1948, Grimme was named the first General Manager of Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk. In 1956, he retired to Degerndorf am Inn in the municipality of Brannenburg.
A well-known quote from Adolf Grimme is A socialist can be a Christian. A Christian must be a socialist.
Over the decades since his death, Grimme has become a "name without a history". An annual television prize, the most prestigious in Germany, is named for him, the Adolf Grimme Award. Known since 2010 as the Grimme Award, it was first awarded by the City of Marl training institute in 1964. In 1973, a media institute named after Grimme was founded in Marl, and has given out the Grimme Award since 1977, expanded in 2001 to include new media. A biography about Grimme was published in 2008, helping to "return the missing history" to Grimme's name.