The military conflict which devastated Europe for four years from 1914 to 1918 began as a local war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in July 1914, spread with a series of declarations of war by the major European imperial powers in early August, and soon sucked in 32 nations. The immediate cause of the war was the assassination of the heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb nationalist. But the near-immediate involvement of so much of Europe and the wider world in the conflict revealed the delicate and doomed balance which had been sustained for some time between competitive nationalisms, imperial ambitions, and economic competition between a range of states. All of these forces built a paranoia between nations resulting in a vast military and naval build-up from 1900, which eventually saw major countries drawn up into two opposing groups in Europe: the Triple Entente powers of Britain, Russia and France, and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. After wars in the Balkans in 1912–13, Serb determination to bring back areas of Austria-Hungary which had traditionally formed part of the Slav peoples grew. But with Russia determined to support Serbia in any conflict with the Austro-Hungarians, and with all the powers in each of the triple configurations of nations committed to mobilize their armies to support any of the others if threatened, any spark such as that caused by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand would inevitably and rapidly draw all the major powers into battle with one another.
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