Born in Munich as the second child of a butcher, Strauß studied philology, history and economics at the University of Munich from 1935 to 1939. In World War II, he was a soldier at both the Western and Eastern Fronts of Germany. While on furlough, he passed the German state exams to become a teacher. After suffering from severe frostbites at the Eastern Front, he taught at a military school near Schongau.
After the war, he was appointed deputy Landrat (county president) of Schongau by the American occupiers and was involved in founding the local CSU there. He became a member of the first Bundestag in 1949 and, in 1953, minister for special affairs in the second cabinet of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, in 1955 Minister of Nuclear Energy, and in 1956 defense minister, charged with the build-up of the new Bundeswehr – the youngest man in this office to that date. He became chairman of the CSU in 1961.
Strauß was forced to step down as defense minister in 1962, in the wake of the Spiegel scandal, in which Rudolf Augstein, owner and editor-in-chief of the influental Der Spiegel magazine, was arrested on his request for 103 days. After Strauß had to admit that he had lied to the Bundestag, he was forced to resign – although complaining that he was treated like a "Jew who had dared appear at an NSDAP party convention".
Strauß was appointed minister of the treasury again in 1966, in the cabinet of Kurt Georg Kiesinger. In cooperation with the SPD minister for the economy, Karl Schiller, he developed a groundbreaking anticyclic policy; the two ministers, quite unlike in physical appearance and political background, were popularly dubbed Plisch und Plum, after two dogs in a 19th century cartoon by Wilhelm Busch.
After the SPD provided the Chancellor in 1969, Strauß became one of the most vocal critics of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik. A journey to China in 1975, where he was received by Mao Zedong, became a political sensation. After Helmut Kohl's first run for chancellor in 1976 failed, he cancelled the unity of factions between the CDU and CSU parties in the Bundestag, which he only took back months later when the CDU threatened to extend their party to Bavaria (where the CSU holds a political monopoly for the conservatives). The rivalry between Kohl and Strauß would persist.
From 1978 until his death in 1988, Strauß was minister-president of Bavaria, possibly the most memorable figure to ever hold that office. After he ran as candidate for the office of Bundeskanzler and was defeated by Helmut Schmidt in 1980, he retreated to commenting federal politics from the safe seat of his state. In the following years, even after Kohl eventually became chancellor in 1982, he was the most visible critic of Kohl's politics in his own political camp. In 1983, he was primarly responsible for a loan of 3 billion Deutschmarks given to East Germany, which is today regarded as an artificial elongation of the then-bankrupt state's lifetime.
On October 1, 1988, Strauß collapsed while hunting with the Duke of Thurn und Taxis. He died in hospital in October 3 without having regained conscience.
Strauß married Marianne Zwicknagl in 1957, with whom he had three children.
Strauß has shaped post-war Germany and polarized the public like few others. A vocal figurehead of conservatives and brilliant rhetorician, yet involved in several large-scale scandals, he was a red rag to liberals. Still, most would agree that he was a extraordinary politician and managed to transform Bavaria from the once-agrarian state to one of the centers of technology in Germany that it is today. Munich's airport was named after him in 1992 (see Franz Josef Strauß International Airport).