Dr. David Murphy is a Professor of History at AU, and co-director of the Honors program. He studied at Southern Illinois University for his undergraduate years, and the University of Illinois for his graduate and PhD education. He is from Rockford, Illinois, and he met his wife in high school. They have been married for nearly 30 years and have seven children.
Q: What drew you to AU?
A: When I finished my grad studies, I looked in the history professors’ hiring journal, it’s called Perspectives, and AU was advertising, and they had a completely unique advertisement, it said “we want a generalist in European history,” and that’s the only one like that I’ve ever seen and I thought “that’s the job for me” because I liked a lot of things. And then what happened was that I hadn’t heard of AU before, but they invited me over for the interview and the more I got to know about it, the more I became enthusiastic about it and really wanted the job. I wanted to work in a religiously affiliated school. I wanted to work in a smaller school that wasn’t really focused on graduate school, but on undergraduates. So AU, I was comfortable in and with its Christian commitment, and I liked the fact that it was kind of a liberal arts school with small classes where you could get to know your students. I came from schools where some classes literally had 450 students and I just don’t think that’s the right way to do education. Higher education is best done in small batches, I think. The chance to do that in a Christian setting like this was really appealing to me.
Q: What did you start out doing in your first couple years teaching?
A: I would say I started out teaching badly. I had to learn a lot. Graduate school doesn’t really prepare you to be a teacher; it prepares you to be a scholar. I feel sorry for some of the kids I had in my first few years because I have become a far better, more efficient, skilled teacher over 25 years of doing this. I started out teaching Western Civ. and Eastern Europe as well because the Cold War was just winding down and political science in our department wanted their students to have a background in Eastern Europe, so I taught that. As the school’s population has changed, my job here has altered a little bit too, so I teach a different range of courses today, but still western civ. that’s been a part ever since I arrived here.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about teaching at AU?
A: The freedom I have to think about moral and ethical values in history. It’s funny, coming to a place like this, people warned me “that’s a Christian school and there are things you won’t be able to say” and I honestly feel that I have a lot more freedom to talk about most of what is important in history than many of my colleagues who teach at schools without the affiliation like the one we have here at AU, and I really appreciate that. I do feel it would be difficult for me to leave here because I’ve become accustomed to a freedom in the way that I can teach that I regret to say I don’t think I’d have at lots of other places, and I value that. One other thing I value is that we have nice students, we really do. I visit lots of other schools on a regular basis, because I lecture at them and I do guest talks, and coming back here, it always immediately strikes me that our students are so friendly, and courteous, and open and nice. You night say, “well, students are like that everywhere” and they really are not. The more I hear, that is something that I have really come to value and appreciate. I’m lucky to teach here in that way.
Q: What drew you to your specific specialties?
A: [About Germany,] when I thought of modern history, I was interesting in European history, and then when I thought of Europe since the early to mid 19th century, it seemed to me that in many fields, Germany played a very central role—not just the disastrous role that we all think of in starting the two world wars, obviously it was very central to those—but also in the history of the sciences and the arts and music, in architecture, in chemistry, in astronomy, in nuclear physics, in a dozen fields of the last two centuries’ endeavors. Germany, this small part of the world’s population, has produced this really vibrant culture that has taken this leading role and I was curious about that. Also, My grandmother’s a German immigrant, and I have a personal family connection with some of that, and that probably explains some of my personal interest as well. But even if I didn’t have that family connection, I really believe that the German achievement both good and bad has been remarkable in the last two centuries and I was curious about the sources of that.
For the Holocaust, I don’t think anybody who studies modern German history can avoid it; having to think about and confront the holocaust, and consider how this unimaginably disastrous tradgedy affects our understanding of what the modern west is about, of what a Christian society is about.
Q: Have you travelled to Germany?
A: Yeah, I spent a lot of time there. In fact, I was just there this summer. I lived there for a year and a half, I spent a summer there on a grant from Global Foundations, and I travel there pretty regularly to do research, and to collect material for my classes. I use a lot of it in the Holocaust [class]. This last summer I was pretty fortunate to not just travel in Germany, but in Europe pretty broadly, and see sights that I hadn’t visited before in Paris and on the French coast that will help me in things that I teach.
[Living in Germany] was exciting because I was living there when the wall fell, and then in 1989 one of my sons was born there. My experience there was very different from a lot of people I was with. Many of them were grad students, or people who had just finished graduate school and almost none of them had families. I was there as a husband and father with three kids, so my experience, my perspective on German life was what it was like to try to raise a family in a modern, big German city, to try and get them educated and all those things. That was a great opportunity.
In the summers I’ve spent there since, when I go back, sometimes I’ve been able to bring some of my family, part of them with me. And it’s been good at giving me a sense of not just the way Germany’s past has influenced the present, but also what the struggles of daily life are like there today. That’s been a good thing for me to keep in touch with.
Q: Can you tell me about the books you’ve written?
A: I’ve written three books, one is called The Heroic Earth, and then German Exploration of the Polar World and then Murder in Their Hearts. Two of them are about modern political German culture. They’re about the ways in which Germans thought about geographical space and how that influenced German political life in the middle of the 20th century. The most recent one, which came out a couple of years ago, is about something that happened here in Madison County: the Fall Creek Massacre. In some ways, it was the book that was the easiest to write for me. I didn’t have to travel abroad to do the research for it, and it’s a brief book. It was really a pleasure to write because the events have such a natural dramatic narrative structure. There’s this crime, and then there’s investigation, and then there’s retribution. The real story almost seems like a play that someone wrote. It’s also been great because I’ve met so many people, locally, through that book. It has sold, to my surprise, better than any of my others. I am often asked to speak at libraries, or to community groups about it because it was such a dramatic story. “Why this one time did we execute white men for murdering native Americans?” and the book is an attempt to explain that “why did this case of interracial violence turn out differently from so many others?” It was really satisfying for me to write because I felt that it makes a real contribution to our thinking about contemporary American life. In some ways it’s my favorite book to have written. But I’m not going to stick to that; I’m working on another book now that is about the Holocaust, and about Nazi population politics during World War 2, so I’m going back to that.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through your research?
A: The most valuable thing that I took from this most recent book, and it probably applies to the others when I think about it, is just the incredible complexity of human motivation and behavior. It’s easy to approach something like, for example, violence on the frontier in Indiana and the way I think that I and most of us are educated about those things in our society, before we study it closely, would encourage us to have pretty simple explanations and expectations for how people would behave. In fact, the reality as I interpret it is that it’s almost impossible to make valid, broad generalizations about people’s attitudes or their behavior, and it’s really important to accept that history is as messy and as complex as every individual human life and that is something that is hard for lots of people to accept or to understand and I think that the most interesting thing about history is that to really understand it you have to make it more complicated, not less.
Q: What can you tell me about the project that you’re currently working on?
A: My provisional title is Biopolitics, Birth Control, and The Final Solution. It’s about the ways in which the Nazis thought about the subject populations of Eastern Europe that were under their control during the second world war, and how they tried to restructure the human biology of Eastern Europe by encouraging certain populations to procreate and by really actively and violently impinging upon and discouraging the procreation of other populations. I’m interested in that because I see a lot of trends in government today that have what I see as a biopolitical focus and implication. Nazi policies in Eastern Europe during the war were, in my opinion, some of the most large-scale ambitious attempts made by governments in the last century to enact explicit biopolitical agendas and really take sinister steps that would shape what the future population of human beings in some spaces would look like. That’s something that I find frightening and it’s something that has been overlooked completely in the history of the Holocaust. It is a part of the Holocaust, although it doesn’t focus directly on the Jews, but on other subject peoples. It is a part of that; it was all part of Nazi racial restructuring on Eastern Europe. So that’s what it’s about and I’m at the point now, where I’m going to start in the next six months to a year approaching various publishers to see who might be interested in producing a work like that.