Hugo Ball's major contribution as leader and co-founder along with his girlfriend, cabaret performer, Emmy Hennings, of the Dada movement, was to articulate the collective's radical nihilistic and iconoclastic ideology. It was this first group in Zurich that spawned important international offshoots in Paris, Berlin, and New York. In their First Dadaist Manifesto, written by Ball in 1916, the early Dadaists who met at the Cabaret Voltaire explained how their new movement was a direct revolt against the prevailing bourgeois aesthetic and social values of the West and against society's glorification of war and violence.

Ball's sound poems such as Karawane (1916) and Katzen and Pfauen (1916) exemplified Dada's ironic, nonsensical, and playful yet deadly serious critique of Western culture. A prolific writer and well-educated in German history, philosophy, and literature, Ball also drafted a number of other experimental writings, including a novel, an extensive diary, and several scholarly works.

By 1920, Ball returned to the Catholicism of his early life and immersed himself in the mysticism of early medieval Christian saints. He retired with Hennings to a tiny Swiss village, Agnuzzo, where he began the process of revising his diaries from 1910 to 1921, which were later published under the title, Die Flucht aus der Zeit (Flight Out of Time). The diaries provide a wealth of information concerning the people and events of the Zurich Dada movement. Ball died quite young, at age 41 in 1927, poor, a religious zealot, in self-imposed isolation and all but forgotten. He had become the epitome of the Dadaists as he once described them: a person "still so convinced of the unity of all beings, of the totality of all things, that he suffers from the dissonances."