In the first part of the 20th century, several efforts were taken to formalize international police cooperation, but they initially failed. Among these efforts were the First International Criminal Police Congress in Monaco in 1914, and the International Police Conference in New York in 1922. The Monaco Congress failed because it was organized by legal experts and political officials, not by police professionals, while the New York Conference failed to attract international attention.
In 1923, a new initiative was taken at the International Criminal Police Congress in Vienna, where the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC) was successfully founded as the direct forerunner of INTERPOL. Founding members included police officials from Austria, Germany, Belgium, Poland, China, Egypt, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia. The United Kingdom joined in 1928. The United States did not join Interpol until 1938, although a US police officer unofficially attended the 1923 congress.
Following Anschluss in 1938, the organization fell under the control of Nazi Germany, and the Commission's headquarters were eventually moved to Berlin in 1942. Most members withdrew their support during this period. From 1938 to 1945, the presidents of the ICPC included Otto Steinhäusl, Reinhard Heydrich, Arthur Nebe, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner. All were generals in the SS, and Kaltenbrunner was the highest ranking SS officer executed after the Nuremberg Trials.
After the end of World War II, the organization was in 1946 revived as the International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO) by officials from Belgium, France, Scandinavia and the UK. Its new headquarters were established in Paris, then from 1967 in Saint-Cloud, a suburb of Paris. They remained there until 1989, when they were moved to their present location in Lyon.
Until the 1980s, INTERPOL did not intervene in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in accordance with Article 3 of its Charter, which prohibited intervention in "political" matters.
In July 2010, former INTERPOL President Jackie Selebi was found guilty of corruption by the South African High Court in Johannesburg for accepting bribes worth €156,000 ($192,831) from a drug trafficker. After being charged in January 2008, Selebi resigned as president of INTERPOL and was put on extended leave as National Police Commissioner of South Africa. He was temporarily replaced by
Arturo Herrera Verdugo, the National Commissioner of Investigations Police of Chile and former vice president for the American Zone, who remained acting president until the appointment of Khoo Boon Hui in October 2008.
On 8 November 2012, the 81st General Assembly closed with the election of Deputy Central Director of the French Judicial Police, Mireille Ballestrazzi, as the first female president of the organization.
In November 2016, Meng Hongwei, a politician from the People's Republic of China, was elected president during the 85th Interpol General Assembly, and was to serve in this capacity until 2020. At the end of September 2018, Meng was reported missing during a trip to China, after being "taken away" for questioning by "discipline authorities". Chinese police later confirmed that Meng had been arrested on charges of bribery as part of a national anti-corruption campaign. On 7 October 2018, INTERPOL announced that Meng had resigned his post with immediate effect and that the Presidency would be temporarily occupied by INTERPOL Senior Vice-President (Asia) Kim Jong Yang of South Korea. On 21 November 2018, INTERPOL's General Assembly elected Kim to fill the remainder of Meng's term, in a controversial election which saw accusations that the other candidate, Vice President Alexander Prokopchuk of Russia, had used INTERPOL notices to target critics of the Russian government.