Geoffrey Robinson (he changed his name to Dawson in 1917), the eldest child of George Robinson, banker, and his wife, Mary Perfect, was born at Skipton, Yorkshire, on 25th October 1874. He was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College. He obtained firsts in classical moderations (1895) and literae humaniores (1897).
After leaving the University of Oxford he was employed by the Colonial Office, under Joseph Chamberlain as colonial secretary. In 1901 he was promoted assistant private secretary to Chamberlain, and later in that same year he obtained the same position with the high commissioner for South Africa, the strong imperialist, Alfred Milner. During the Boar War the high commissioner became the administrator (later governor) of the two former republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
Geoffrey Dawson was one of a number of young Oxford graduates whom Milner had recruited to work in the administration of the new colonies. William Thackeray Marriott described them as "Milner's Kindergarten". The group included John Buchan, Lionel Curtis, Richard Feetham, Fabian Ware, Robert Brand, Basil Temple Blackwood, Patrick Duncan, Geoffrey Robinson Dawson, Philip Kerr and John Hanbury-Williams. All the men saw the unification of South Africa as the key to economic prosperity.
According to Dawson's biographer, Peter Neville: "When Milner went back to Britain, he left several of the kindergarten behind in key posts, at a time when South Africa was recovering from years of bitter struggle. In 1905 Robinson left the civil service on being appointed, largely through Milner's influence, editor of the Johannesburg Star, and he held the editorship until 1910, during the period of office of William Waldegrave Palmer, second earl of Selborne, Milner's successor as high commissioner. From 1906 onwards he was also the South Africa correspondent of The Times, which gave him a platform for a journalistic career in London. For the moment, however, Robinson remained in Johannesburg."
In September 1909, Dawson helped Sir Alfred Milner establish the Round Table. According to Alex May "The aim of the Round Table was deceptively simple: to ensure the permanence of the British empire by reconstructing it as a federation representative of all its self-governing parts. Curtis depicted this as the logical outcome of the movement towards self-government in the dominions, and the only alternative to disruption and independence." Curtis was appointed General Secretary on a salary of £1,000 a year. Other members included Leo Amery, Robert Cecil, Lionel Curtis, Philip Kerr, Reginald Coupland, Edward Grigg and Alfred Zimmern.
In 1911 Geoffrey Dawson returned to London and became a full-time staff member of The Times under its owner, the press magnate Lord Northcliffe. In August 1912, aged only thirty-seven, Robinson was appointed editor on the retirement of George Earle Buckle. According to Stephen E. Koss, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain (1984) Dawson seems to have "routinely acquiesced in Northcliffe's views and prejudices". Henry Wickham Steed, later suggested that Dawson was too much under the influence of his mentor Sir Alfred Milner.
Dawson attended the Versailles Peace Conference. He commented: "All the world is here. It's like a gigantic cinema-show of eminent persons". However, on his return he was involved in a dispute with Northcliffe over The Times coverage of the government of David Lloyd George, which he considered "too sympathetic". Northcliffe also disliked his attitude towards the defeated nations of the First World War. Dawson resigned in February 1919, because he found Northcliffe's "irresponsible Hun-baiting" intolerable.
On 14th June 1919, Geoffrey Dawson married Margaret Cecilia Lawley, the younger daughter of Sir Arthur Lawley, later sixth Baron Wenlock, who had been lieutenant-governor of the Transvaal. They had one son and two daughters. Dawson became estates bursar to All Souls College. He also took up a directorship in the Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa Company and was secretary to the Rhodes Trust from 1921 to 1922. The interest in journalism was maintained by a temporary editorship of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.
After the death of Northcliffe in August 1922, the new owners of The Times, invited Dawson to return as editor. Dawson developed a close relationship with the leadership of the Conservative Party. He was also a strong supporter of Ramsay MacDonald when in 1931 he became head of the National Government. According to Richard Crockett, the author Twilight of Truth: Chamberlain, Appeasement and the Manipulation of the Press (1989), in "the 1930s it can be said that Dawson was privy to more Cabinet thinking and secrets than most members of the government, whether the Prime Minister was MacDonald, Baldwin, or Chamberlain".
In a 1935 speech the Prince of Wales had called for a closer understanding of Nazi Germany in order to safeguard peace in Europe. Geoffrey Dawson agreed with this idea and joined Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Montague Norman, Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, Ronald Nall-Cain, 2nd Baron Brocket, Sir Thomas Moore, Frank Cyril Tiarks, Ernest Bennett, Duncan Sandys and Norman Hulbert in forming the Anglo-German Fellowship. Two Soviet spies, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, also joined. However, they did this because they knew MI5 and MI6 were recruiting from this pro-Nazi organization.
In 1936 Dawson urged Stanley Baldwin to accept the proposal by Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador to Britain, to meet with Adolf Hitler. Baldwin refused but Neville Chamberlain was far more sympathetic towards Dawson's views on appeasement. Chamberlain believed that Germany had been badly treated by the Allies after it was defeated in the First World War. He therefore thought that the German government had genuine grievances and that these needed to be addressed. He also thought that by agreeing to some of the demands being made by Hitler he could avoid a European war.
Dawson was also a member of the Cliveden Set. Dawson was a regular weekend guest at Cliveden, the home of Lord Waldorf Astor and his wife, Lady Nancy Astor. Other members included Philip Henry Kerr (Lord Lothian), Edward Wood (Lord Halifax), William Montagu, 9th Duke of Manchester and Robert Brand. Another regular visitor was the Nazi spy, Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe. As Jim Wilson, the author of Nazi Princess: Hitler, Lord Rothermere and Princess Stephanie Von Hohenlohe (2011) has pointed out: "The Astors' house parties became notorious for attracting members of aristocratic society supportive of Hitler and his policies, and for enthusiasts of appeasement. Lord Astor owned both The Observer and The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, was another of Princess Stephanie's acquaintances and also regularly attended at Cliveden.The house parties were therefore fruitful occasions for Stephanie to work her brand of subtle propaganda: persuasive, clever conversation which traded heavily on her personal contacts with Hitler."
Anthony Eden, Chamberlain's foreign secretary, did not agree with the policy of appeasement and resigned in February, 1938. Eden was replaced by Lord Halifax who fully supported this policy. Winston Churchill, Chamberlain's leading critic within the Conservative Party, argued in the House of Commons: "The resignation of the late Foreign Secretary may well be a milestone in history. Great quarrels, it has been well said, arise from small occasions but seldom from small causes. The late Foreign Secretary adhered to the old policy which we have all forgotten for so long. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have entered upon another and a new policy. The old policy was an effort to establish the rule of law in Europe, and build up through the League of Nations effective deterrents against the aggressor. Is it the new policy to come to terms with the totalitarian powers in the hope that by great and far-reaching acts of submission, not merely in sentiment and pride, but in material factors, peace may be preserved."
Peter Neville has argued: "Dawson's closest relationship was with Lord Halifax, whose Eton, Oxford, and high Anglican antecedents he shared.... In reality, Dawson knew little about European affairs... A regular visitor to Cliveden, he could be counted upon to share Nancy Astor's pro-appeasement, pro-Chamberlain leanings... Dawson's views on appeasing Germany, although supported by his long-standing deputy Barrington-Ward, caused divisions in the office of The Times."
It has been claimed by Stanley Morison, the author of The History of The Times (1952) that Dawson had censored the reports of the Berlin correspondent of the newspaper, Norman Ebbutt. Another correspondent in the city, William Shirer commented: “The trouble for Ebbutt was that his newspaper, the most esteemed in England, would not publish much of what he reported. The Times in those days was doing its best to appease Hitler and to induce the British government to do likewise. The unpleasant truths that Ebbutt telephones nightly to London from Berlin were often kept out of the great newspaper”.
Robert Boothby described Dawson as "the Secretary General of the Establishment, the fervent advocate of Appeasement". The historian, A. L. Rowse, argued in All Souls and Appeasement (1961) that Dawson's views is best explained by "an ignorance of Europe and of European history; too close a rapport with particular politicians; an empirical outlook lacking in principle". Dawson himself claimed that the main reason why he supported the Munich Agreement was because he feared that war with Germany over Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1938 "would have been misunderstood and resented from end to end of the Empire".
Dawson became involved in a spy scandal. In 1938 British intelligence was becoming very concerned about the activities of Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe. A report said: "She is frequently summoned by the Führer who appreciates her intelligence and good advice. She is perhaps the only woman who can exercise any influence on him." They also reported that she seemed to be "actively recruiting these British aristocrats in order to promote Nazi sympathies." (PROKV2/1696). According to MI5 the list of people she had been associating with over the last few years included Geoffrey Dawson, Duke of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, Prince George, Duke of Kent, Ethel Snowden, Philip Henry Kerr (Lord Lothian), Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, Ronald Nall-Cain, 2nd Baron Brocket, Lady Maud Cunard and Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild. In August 1938 French intelligence, the Deuxième Bureau, told MI6 that it was almost certain that Princess Stephanie was an important German agent.
The outbreak of the Second World War Dawson advocated an energetic war policy and criticized the way Neville Chamberlain was organizing the war effort. The damage had been done, however, and The Times suffered a considerable loss of prestige because of its earlier associations with appeasement. Dawson resigned from his post as editor on 30th September 1941.