Hugo Ball was born in Pirmasens, German Empire, and was raised in a middle-class Catholic family. He studied sociology and philosophy at the universities of Munich and Heidelberg (1906–1907). In 1910, he moved to Berlin in order to become an actor and collaborated with Max Reinhardt. At the beginning of the First World War he tried joining the army as a volunteer, but was denied enlistment for medical issues. After witnessing the invasion of Belgium, he was disillusioned saying: "The war is founded on a glaring mistake, men have been confused with machines". Considered a traitor in his country, he crossed the frontier with his wife and settled in Zürich. Here, Ball continued his interest in anarchism, and in Bakunin in particular; he also worked on the book of Bakunin translations, which never got published. Although interested in anarchist philosophy, he nonetheless rejected it for its militant aspects, and viewed it as only a means to his personal goal of enlightenment.
In 1916, Hugo Ball created the Dada Manifesto, making a political statement about his views on the terrible state of society and acknowledging his dislike for philosophies in the past claiming to possess the ultimate Truth. The same year as the Manifesto, in 1916, Ball wrote his poem "Karawane," which is a poem consisting of nonsensical words. The meaning however resides in its meaninglessness, reflecting the chief principle behind Dadaism. Some of his other best known works include the poem collection 7 schizophrene Sonette, the drama Die Nase des Michelangelo, a memoir of the Zürich period Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, and a biography of Hermann Hesse, entitled Hermann Hesse. Sein Leben und sein Werk (1927).
As co-founder of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, he led the Dada movement in Zürich, and is one of the people credited with naming the movement "Dada", by allegedly choosing the word at random from a dictionary. He was married to Emmy Hennings, another member of Dada.
His involvement with the Dada movement lasted approximately two years. He then worked for a short period as a journalist, for Freie Zeitung in Bern. After returning to Catholicism in July 1920, Ball retired to the canton of Ticino where he lived a religious and relatively poor life. He died in Sant'Abbondio, Switzerland of stomach cancer on September 14, 1927.
His poem "Gadji beri bimba" was later adapted to the song "I Zimbra" on the 1979 Talking Heads album Fear of Music; he received a writing credit for the song on the track listing. A voice-cut-up collage of his poem "Karawane" by German artist Kommissar Hjuler, member of Boris Lurie's NO!Art Movement, was released as LP at Greek label Shamanic Trance in 2010.