What are the short-term causes of World War I?

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What ultimately triggered the conflict was, of course, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. But the immediate cause of World War I was the complex system of diplomatic alliances that had been painstakingly constructed over the course of the previous century.

Ever since the defeat of Napoleon, European powers had been convinced of the benefit of mutual alliances between nations. They believed that such agreements would make it harder for one nation to cause as much havoc and upheaval in Europe as Revolutionary and Napoleonic France had done. The thinking behind the alliance system was that it would provide a balance of power in Europe. It was believed that large states would be reluctant to attack smaller ones if they were under the protection of other large states under this system.

In theory, this seemed the perfect solution to the massive upheaval and disruption caused by French armies from the Revolution onward. In practice, however, the system of alliances ignored the facts that the precise boundaries of nations could not always be determined with any degree of accuracy and that ethnic nationalism often transcended borders. So, in 1914, when Serbia found itself subjected to impossible demands by Austro-Hungary and its German allies, it was inevitable that the Russians would intervene on behalf of their fellow Slavs. Soon, other nations piled into the incipient conflict, fulfilling commitments to mutual assistance treaties that they never thought would come to fruition.

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The short-term causes of World War I were the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary's decision to take a hard line with the nation of Serbia in response, and the alliance systems that caused the local conflict in the Balkans to spread throughout the continent. 

The Archduke was the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and though he was reform-minded, he was killed by Gavrilo Princip, part of a Bosnian Serb group eager to create a pan-Slavic state under the control of Serbia. With German leaders goading them along, Austria-Hungary held the state of Serbia responsible for the assassination, issuing a deliberately provocative ultimatum for the Serbians to turn over the parties responsible for conspiring to assassinate the Archduke. When Serbia refused, Austria-Hungary declared war, and the complex alliance systems that had developed over the previous three decades kicked in. Serbia's ally Russia mobilized its forces against Austria-Hungary, and Germany in turn declared war on Russia. A complex series of events followed that saw Russia's ally France declare war on the Russians, and when Germany went through Belgium to attack the French, Britain entered the war to fulfill their treaty commitment to defend the Belgians. With that, the nations of Europe were sucked into what would become the most destructive war any had ever experienced.

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