He was born on the January 26, 1906 in the village Dombóvár in today's Hungary. His parents, native Slovaks came from Šurany.
He studied at the Military Academy in Hranice, in 1927 received the rank of lieutenant of artillery. In 1937 he received the rank of captain. He served as a staff officer in Trenčín. Belonged to a group of an anti-Nazi oriented officers. Since January 1944 he was appointed chief of staff of the Slovak Ground Forces in Banská Bystrica, where he gathered a group of influential anti-nazi oriented officers sustaining contact with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London.
He was the supreme military leader of the uprising from April 27, 1944 (while the uprising was still in preparation) until the arrival of Division General Rudolf Viest on October 7, 1944. After start of Slovak insurrection on August 29, 1944 Golian took command of Slovak forces in central Slovakia, from the headquarters in Banská Bystrica. His units should serve only as a support for two Slovak divisions in eastern Slovakia which should secure connection with Soviet Red Army. However organization of insurgence in the eastern Slovakia failed and German forces disarmed both Slovak divisions without resistance. From the beginning of September Golian along with his staff organized defense of Slovak units encircled in central Slovakia. According to the testimony of his Chief of staff Major
Július Nosko, Golian assumed that insurgents defense against the German attacks could not last more than 14 days. On October 7, 1944 Golian was replaced in command of the insurrection forces by general Viest. Afterwards, General Ján Golian served as Viest's deputy. Despite fierce fighting, the outnumbered and surrounded insurrectionist army could not resist well-equipped and better trained German forces. When Viest and Golian ordered their remaining units to start a guerrilla war on October 27, 1944, they did not know that it would be the last order they issued. Both Generals were captured by German special forces on November 3, 1944 in Pohronský Bukovec. He was detained in the Flossenbürg concentration camp at the end of the war. Information about him in the last days of the war has vanished. It is believed that he was tortured and then murdered in Flossenbürg together with General Viest. Golian was officially listed as missing for 2 years after the war.