1926: A brave new world | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 19.04.2016
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1926: A brave new world

As Britain's Queen Elizabeth II prepares to celebrate her 90th birthday on Thursday, DW takes a look back at the society, politics and culture of the world she was born into.

Following the horrors of World War I, the so-called Roaring Twenties were a time of relative peace, optimism and social revolution, across Europe and the world.

It was also a time of massive geopolitical change as Britain, up till then the biggest empire the world had ever seen, began to lose its footing as the dominant global power - a mantle it lost to the US. When the future British queen was born on April 21, 1926, the world she inherited would continue to transform in unimaginable ways as depression and fascism conspired to reignite chaos.

Pleasure, decadence and experimentation

As Europe struggled to rebuild after the calamity of war, and America was gripped by a backlash against the corruption and criminality associated with prohibition, young people rose up against social conventions and danced their way into the Jazz Age.

Leonardo DiCaprio (left), Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton in a scene from The Great Gatsby +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" was made into a 2013 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio (left), Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton

From the surrealists in the arts to the new literature coming out of Paris' Left Bank from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald - whose 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby" perfectly documented the rebellious excesses of the time - the 1920s also saw women get the vote and begin to assert their sexual independence through the use of birth control, with the the introduction of the condom.

Meanwhile, socialist workers stood up for better wages and conditions, crippling Britain with a 12-day general strike the year Elizabeth was born.

As America became the powerhouse of the world economy, its national income greater than Britain, France, Germany, Japan and many other countries combined, the United Kingdom was also facing a growing struggle for independence with its biggest colony, India.

Queen Elizabeth II as a baby in 1926 with her mother (at left)

Elizabeth was just a baby when a 12-day general strike shut down the UK

The redoubtable Indian pacifist leader, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, inspired anti-British nationalist movements across the empire - especially in Ireland, which formed a breakaway state in 1922.

Britain's own youth were also starting to rebel against the status quo. Disillusioned by the nightmare of war, and determined to undermine outmoded social mores, a nihilistic generation sought pleasure, decadence and experimentation.

The scene was aptly described by the writer Evelyn Waugh in his novel 1930 novel, "Vile Bodies."

Baker, Lang and Einstein

The African-American performer, singer, bisexual and activist Josephine Baker was among the great symbols of artistic, social and sexual emancipation in the 1920s. In 1925, she fled segregated America to become one of the highest paid performers in Paris and Berlin, at a time when divorce rates rose and liberated flappers cut their hair and donned tuxedos.

Having been granted the limited vote in most Western countries by 1920, women began to fight harder for gender equality, leading to the passing of the Equal Franchise Act in Britain in 1928.

Metropolis Fritz Lang und Filmcrew - circa 1926: Director Fritz Lang (1890 - 1976, right) and crew members inspect the robot from the film 'Metropolis', which is made to resemble the saintly Maria. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"Metropolis" starred German actress Brigitte Helm as Maria (and a robot made to resemble her)

Rapidly industrializing postwar cities grew at a record pace and a new mass consumerism marked urban life. In response, filmmakers began to portray this dizzying machine age. Fritz Lang's dystopian 1927 film, "Metropolis," would symbolize this brave new world, while Charlie Chaplin would portray his Little Tramp's struggle to come to terms with modernity a decade later in "Modern Times."

Meanwhile, as televisions first came online and a medical revolution created penicillin and insulin to combat deadly diseases, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was further developing his theory of relativity in Berlin that would also pave the way for the creation of the atomic bomb.

The future Queen Elizabeth was just a toddler when the Golden Twenties came to a close and a global Great Depression became the harbinger of much darker times ahead. With the scars of the former war yet to fully heal, the veneer of a gilded age would rapidly peel away in Europe and across the world.

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