Our paper reports the detrital zircon record from Late Devonian to late Carboniferous foreland basin deposits in the Rheno-Hercynian (RH) Variscides of Germany. Together with a review of petrography and detrital mineral ages from the literature, the data permit to reconstruct accretion and exhumation along the RH active margin. From Frasnian to latest Carboniferous, the main source (now eroded) was a north-Armorican microcontinent (Franconia) with magmatic rocks representing late Neoproterozoic arc or back-arc, Cambro-Ordovician rift and Silurian–Early Devonian subduction of the Rheic ocean and (or) RH rifting. At ca. 380 Ma, detrital magmatic zircons combined with high- to medium-pressure mica and detrital glaucophane suggest the existence of a paired metamorphic belt at the RH tectonic front. From the Viséan onwards, zircons reveal younging of granitoid debris from ca. 380–360 Ma in Late Devonian sediments to ca. 320–300 Ma in the Westphalian C–D and Stephanian. Greywackes of the Namurian A record a change from dominant magmatic clasts toward meta-arenites associated with Baltoscandian zircons, which document accretion to and exhumation from the base of the orogenic wedge. Their source must be sought in metamorphosed Devonian sandstones of the type presently encountered in parts of the active margin crystallines (Mid-German Crystalline High), but in eroded higher units. Basal accretion implies heating of the lower plate beyond the brittle–ductile boundary and supports the model of a high-temperature regime before and during Variscan collision. Palinspastic restoration of the estimated volume of recycled material yields >100 km of distal shelf deposits lost in the process, which adds to the known shortening of the RH basin. The Variscan geology of southwestern England and southern Portugal and provenance studies in those areas are compatible with a geodynamic evolution similar to that in Germany.

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