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A doubly vergent orogenic wedge system within the Central European Variscides developed during Carboniferous collision of two continental fragments, the northwestern edge of the Saxo-Thuringian upper plate and the Rheno-Hercynian passive margin in the lower plate. The resulting thrust system in the upper plate above the SE-dipping subduction zone retains the memory of the mode of deformation partitioning and material flow pattern in its internal architecture, its kinematic, metamorphic and geochronological record, and its reflection seismic image. New data indicate a stepwise SE-ward progradation of the NW Saxo-Thuringian fold belt with two stages of shortening between about 340 and 335 and between 320 and 310 Ma above a NW-dipping basal detachment. The NW Saxo-Thuringian fold belt is reinterpreted as a retro-wedge that was kinematically coupled to the Rheno-Hercynian pro-wedge and subduction system. The two steps in retro-wedge growth are linked to (a) the onset of collision with the Rheno-Hercynian margin causing upper-plate uplift and (b) a widespread late-orogenic stage of wedge thickening. The retro-wedge accumulated mostly diffuse shortening of > 100 km versus the shortening by imbrication of 180–200 km in the Rheno-Hercynian lower plate. Material advection and orogenic architecture were strongly affected by asymmetric erosional removal towards the lower-plate foreland and by transient mechanical properties of the wedge system.

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