The International Documentary Film Festival Munich was founded in 1985 by the Munich documentary filmmakers association (AG Dok). The declared goal was a "festival of the festivals" for the Munich audience, with an emphasis on the promotion of creative documentary films, which at the time played only a marginal role in movie theatres in West-Germany.

Under Gudrun Geyer's influence and direction, a large, internationally recognized festival arose, in the mid-nineties comparable only to the festivals in Amsterdam, Nyon, Yamagata or Leipzig. Almost all internationally renowned documentary filmmakers have visited Munich in the past two decades.

The retrospectives on Indian, Cuban, Russian and Arabian documentary cinema that were realized through intense personal engagement, as well as the tributes to Alexandr Sokurov, Louis Malle, Raymond Depardon, Jean Rouch, Robert Kramer, Molly Dineen, Nurith Aviv, Gisela Tuchtenhagen and Gudrun Geyers last retrospective in 2001 on "100 years of animal films" are legendary.

The number of films grew over the years and peaked in 2001 with 200 films at the 16th International Documentary Film Festival.

Following the 16th International Documentary Film Festival that reached a climax with about 200 films and over 10.000 visitors in 2001, Gudrun Geyer resigned from office.

A project group very soon gave birth to the International Documentary Film Festival Association with the goal to preserve and advance the festival.

From 2002, under its new director Hermann Barth, DOK.fest München developed into one of the most important festivals worldwide for feature length creative documentaries, a "best-of"-festival, not obliged to show world premieres, but to reflect what may be – from a certain distance – regarded as the most interesting creative documentaries of the year.

In 2009, Hermann Barth resigned from the festival.

The new festival director Daniel Sponsel with the initial support by Christian Pfeil. Daniel Sponsel will build on the success of the biggest feature documentary film festival in Germany with new sections and new festival venues – the City and Atelier cinemas. In 2011 DOK.forum was also set up. Since then the platform for industry and new talent has offered professional guests and other interested parties a wide range of topics to discuss from the perspective of documentary work.

Since 2019, DOK.fest München is the largest documentary film festival in Germany and has become one of the most relevant platforms for documentary film in Europe.

Due to COVID-19 containment measures, the festival will temporarily take place online in 2020 and 2021. In 2022 and 2023, the festival and the educational platform DOK.education were held in dual format, on the digital screen and at home on the home screen. The industry platform DOK.forum (marketplace and perspectives) took place hybrid in 2022 and 2023both on-site and online at the same time.