Schirach was born in Berlin, the youngest of four children of theatre director, grand ducal chamberlain and retired captain of the cavalry Carl Baily Norris von Schirach (1873–1948) and his American wife Emma Middleton Lynah Tillou (1872–1944). A member of the noble Schirach family, of Sorbian West Slavic origins, three of his four grandparents were from the United States, chiefly from Pennsylvania. Through his mother, Schirach was a descendant of Thomas Heyward, Jr. and an indirect descendant of Arthur Middleton, two signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence. English was the first language he learned at home and he did not learn to speak German until the age of five. He had two sisters, Viktoria and the opera singer Rosalind von Schirach, and a brother, Karl Benedict von Schirach. His brother committed suicide in 1919 at the age of 19.
On 31 March 1932 Schirach married the 19-year-old Henriette Hoffmann, the daughter of Heinrich Hoffmann, Adolf Hitler's personal photographer and close friend. Schirach's family was vehemently opposed to this marriage, but Hitler insisted. Gregor Strasser dismissively described Schirach as "a young effeminate aristocrat" upon whom Hitler bestowed both Henriette and the Hitler Youth position. Through this relationship, Schirach became part of Hitler's inner circle. The young couple were welcome guests at Hitler's "Berghof". Henriette von Schirach gave birth to four children: Angelika Benedikta von Schirach (born 1933), lawyer Klaus von Schirach (born 1935), businessman Robert von Schirach (born 1938) and sinologist Richard von Schirach (born 1942). The lawyer and best-selling German crime writer Ferdinand von Schirach is the couple's grandson. They are also the grandparents of the philosopher and critic Ariadne von Schirach and of the novelist Benedict Wells.
Schirach was a published author, contributing to literature journals, and an influential patron of the arts.
Schirach joined a Wehrjugendgruppe (military cadet group) at the age of ten and became a member of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in 1925. He was soon transferred to Munich, and in 1929 became leader of the National Socialist German Students' League (Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund; NSDStB). In 1931 he was named as Reichsjugendführer (Youth Leader) of the Nazi Party, and in 1933 was made head of the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) and given an SA rank of Gruppenführer. He was made a state secretary in 1936.
Schirach appeared frequently at rallies, such as the Nuremberg rally of 1934, when he appeared with Hitler in rousing the Hitlerjugend audience. The event was filmed for Triumph of the Will the propaganda film made by Leni Riefenstahl for the Nazi Party. Schirach set the militaristic tone of the youth organisation, which participated in military-style exercises, as well as practising use of military equipment, such as rifles.
In July 1939, Schirach paid Passau a formal visit. In July 1940, when a new play by Hans Baumann was staged there, Schirach insisted that 2,000 local Hitler Youth members be part of that performance.
In 1940 Schirach organised the evacuation of five million children from cities threatened by Allied bombing. Later that year, he joined the army and volunteered for service in France, where he was awarded the Iron Cross before being recalled. He served with the 4th (Machine Gun) Company of Infantry Regiment Grossdeutschland in the rank of Gefreiter. During the French Campaign he was promoted to Leutnant and decorated for bravery. Schirach lost control of the Hitler Youth to Artur Axmann, and was appointed Governor (Gauleiter or Reichsstatthalter) of the Reichsgau Vienna, a post in which he remained until the end of the war.
An anti-Semite, Schirach was responsible over the next few years for sending Jews from Vienna to German death camps. During his tenure 65,000 Jews were deported. In a speech on 15 September 1942 he said that their deportation was a "contribution to European culture." Later during the war, Schirach pleaded for a moderate treatment of the eastern European peoples and criticised the conditions in which Jews were being deported. He fell into disfavour with Hitler in 1943, but remained at his post in Vienna.
Schirach was notoriously anxious about air raids. He had the cellars of the Hofburg Palace in the Vienna city centre refurbished and adapted as a bomb shelter, and the lower level of the extensive subterranean Vienna air defence coordination centre in the forests to the west of Vienna held personal facilities for him. The Viennese promptly dubbed this command and control centre the "Schirach-Bunker".
Schirach surrendered in 1945 and was one of the officials put on trial at Nuremberg. At the trial Schirach was one of only two men to denounce Hitler (the other was Albert Speer). He said that he did not know about the extermination camps. He provided evidence that he had protested to Martin Bormann about the inhumane treatment of the Jews. Schirach claimed at the trials that the roots of his anti-semitism could be found in the readings of Henry Ford's The International Jew. He was originally indicted for crimes against peace for his role in building up the Hitler Youth, but was acquitted on that charge. He was found guilty on 1 October 1946 of crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of the Viennese Jews to certain death in Nazi concentration camps located in Poland. He was sentenced and served 20 years as a prisoner in Spandau Prison, Berlin.
On 20 July 1949 his wife Henriette von Schirach (3 February 1913 – 27 January 1992) divorced him while he was in prison.
He was released on 30 September 1966 after serving his full sentence, and retired quietly to Southern Germany. He published his memoirs, Ich glaubte an Hitler ("I believed in Hitler") and died on 8 August 1974 in Kröv.
Von Schirach is mentioned in Philip K. Dick's 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle as a candidate for Führer after the previous holder of the office, Martin Bormann, dies.