I spent days trying to figure out what the first article should be. I thought it should be something easy for the start. But, at the end, I decided to talk about something quite complex. Just to be sure it fits my personality. 😊
During a visit to Nida, the most famous city in the Curonian Spit (so much to talk about it), I noticed a place on the map that was called the Lithuanian valley of death (Mirties Slenis). As a curious human being, I could not have been attracted more to a place with such name…
The European context
Napoleon III ruled France with the Second Empire whilst across its borders Prussia, guided by Otto Von Bismarck, was already holding the presidency of the German Confederation, plotting with Blood and Iron, toward a more definitive predominance. Between them there were two provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, rich in minerals, which were for centuries a crossroad between German and French territories.
The neo-created Kingdom of Italy (1861) after the conquest of almost all the Italian peninsula, was keeping a close eye on Rome and its Pope, still an independent state, protected by French soldiers who were guaranteeing the freedom of the Pope and his domains.
The Lithuanian coast was for centuries part of the Prussian Kingdom which held German speaking territories including the city of Memel (Current Klaipeda).
What’s in the Valley of Death?
The whole Curonian Spit has a long history of sand dunes covering villages – at least 8 recorded by history are laying right now under the sands. Uncontrolled deforestation and fierce winds from the cold Baltic sea, enabled the sands to move and invade, literally, a village every few years and menace many others. During history, generations of planters were planting trees and raising walls to block the powerful winds and the sand. But, what is it with the French?
To make it short, France and its Emperor did not manage to defeat the iron will of German soldiers and Napoleon III surrendered in Sedan, to be taken prisoner and never see France again. Along with him many French soldiers (around 400 thousands) were taken prisoner and brought deep into the German territory. Something like 12000 were taken in the valleys around Nida.
The death of the valley refers to those thousands of French soldiers who were taken from the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian war, dragged through the German territory and then dropped there, in the Desert dunes of Nida, in a work camp in order to plant trees to stop the sands and give the valley its grim name…
Witnesses to European change
As stated, the Franco-Prussian war ended with the loss for the Second Empire of the rich provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Those provinces became directly part of the newly created German Empire, so not a confederation anymore, but a single empire under the control of Kaiser Wilhelm I. (Just to add more context, reconquering those two regions was one of the reason that led to the First World War).
At the same time, in a different part of the European map, the Kingdom of Italy was a young nation which was waiting for the right moment to make an attempt to conquer Rome, still under the temporal rule of the Pope. That definitive attempt, the assault of Porta Pia, was conducted in September 1870, right after the first heavy defeats of the French Army. This was the same French Army which was protecting the papal states up to the moment when the war between Prussia and France was declared. In August 1870 the Papacy was left without support of its French ally which was too busy defending itself from the Prussians to keep soldiers far away from where they were needed. To conclude this point, the soldiers who were taken to Nida where unwillingly minor characters of a game way bigger than them that led to a major earthquake in the European geopolitics.
What can be seen
There is a nice easy road to reach the top of the dune and have a view of the valley from above. It can be crowded so it may be difficult to have one moment alone to admire the landscape in front of your eyes. There is a nice observation point (I took the pictures from there) and there are many paths to go down in the valley and walk in the dunes. There are few crosses on mounds, scattered all over the valley – I could see it from the observation point. The temperature can be pretty hot, do not forget it is literally a valley of sand the one you have in front of your eyes.
Impressive is the number of trees growing all around until the borders with Russia. Supposedly the concentration camp was in the sandy part of the valley, closer to the coast, and the trees were planted by the French captives. More studies are needed, for sure.
How to reach
My advise is to walk from Nida, along the coast, until to reach the top of the Dune. It is a nice walk along the lagoon, entering the forest and climbing the dune. Then, if it is not too hot, explore the dunes below, within the valley. I created a short route with the directions on Viewranger .
Sources and latest news found
The legend is well known in Nida, more interesting is that the French Embassy has recently started financing a project to study the Valley, aiming to find archaeological traces of the French prisoners. What is more, they may eventually build a Memorial for the French soldiers. Official requests have been sent to Germany to have all the possible info about the location and the fate of the twelve thousand prisoners held in what was an actual concentration camp.
I could find sources only in Lithuanian language – I will keep searching for anything else.