Forty years ago today, Germany's synagogues were in flames. Glass from the shattered windows of thousands of Jewish-owned shops littered the streets of every city.

The glass lent a gruesome yet poetic name to the scene - Kristallniacht ." or Crystal night.

The events that began at 3 a.m., Nov. 10, 1938, marked the first nationwide orgy of violent, officially inspired anti-Semitism in Hitler's Germany. yet as bad as it was that night, it was only a hint of what was in store for most of Germany's 700,000 Jews and millions of others elsewhere in Europe.

Yesterday was a day of remembrance for political and religious leaders in West Germany and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, speaking at a new synagogue here on the site of one that was burned down in 1938, said that 40 years later there are still no words to express fully the shame and bitterness or to explain such a tragedy.

The chancellor called Crystal Night "a station on the road to hell" and said the German people could only ask forgiveness. West Germany had made a good beginning in the postwar years, he said, building what he called the most liberal society in the nation's history and one in which the vast majority of people had learned the lessons of the past.

Yet even as the chancellor spoke, there were signs that the disease and the bitterness, however isolated in present-day West Germany, still linger.

In the town of Bredstedt, in northern Germany, walls were found this morning sprayed with red and white paint spelling out the Nazi slogans "Juden raus, Deutschland erwache" (Jews out, Germany awake).

Outside the synagogue in Cologne, a band of about 60 French Jews demanded prosecution of retired postal clerk Kurt Lischka, 68, a former deputy Gestapo chief in Paris. Lischka has been living in Cologne for many years while under investigation for Nazi crimes by West Germany authorities. He has not yet been brought to trial, though one is expected soon.

Inside the synagogue, Max Klayman, 75, seated among the hundreds of invited guests in the audience, told a reporter sitting near him how he and his family had been taken from their Cologne apartment that night and shipped to a concentration camp.

Friends eventually helped him get a visa to South America. When asked why he came back here to live, Klayman said "Nobody comes back because they love Germany. There are always other reasons. Maybe family or elderly relatives or for reparations. There is no other country where you can recoup some of what you lost," he said, referring to postwar West Germany's repayment of billions of dollars to Nazi-era victims.

West Germany television has been airing numerous programs on Crystal Night, with heavy use of documentary film. Last night, one program showed an emaciated Jewish family getting out of a Jewish's cart and being led into a closed room to which hoses were hooked from a Volkswagen exhaust pipe.

Schmidt told his audience that 30,000 Jews were arrested as Crystal Night raids spread throughout the country, and the majority were sent to concentration camps. He said 91 Jews were murdered, many more tortured and 267 synagogues were destroyed. Thousands of shops and apartments were ransacked.

Although the Bonn government is confronting the grim anniversary with candor and openness, however painful, the observance has come at a politically difficult time. West Germany's lawmakers are in the midst of an emotional debate about whether to extend a 30-year statute of limitations on murders classified as Nazi war crimes or to let that statute expire and close the books on any new prosecutions beyond those already under way.

Yesterday, Schmidt said the government would "soon need the advice of our Jewish citizens . . . and our friends in Israel and neighboring countries" about "a difficult decision in which important moral principles may be in conflict. We pray that our conscience will let us decide correctly," he said.

The statute expires on Dec. 31, 1979, and the issue has set apart those who say the books must never close on Nazi crimes to those who say it is time for a clean break over guilt from the past.

"Today's Germans are mostly innocent," Schmidt said. "More than two-thirds of them were either born after the war or were children during the war. Yet we have to carry the political inheritance of the guilty and draw the consequences. That is our responsibility.

"But we ask those Jews in the world and our neighbors not to measure our second German democracy by the handful of mistaken extremists and terrorists who, as in other countries, cannot be changed," Schmidt said.

There are some 27,000 Jews left in West Germany today and Schmidt said that the murder or deportation of the Jews was not only a ghastly crime but that "our people were robbed of sources of creative spirit which to this day have not been replaced and which are irreplaceable."

In East Germany, roughly one-third of the former Third Reich, there are now only about 800 Jews left - mostly old people and without any rabbis - in a population of 16 million.

There have been reports of increasing anti-Semitic incidents there among youths, and as a Protestant church leader in East Germany recently warned the government publicly about beging too lax in curbing a resurgence of fascist attitudes.

Yesterday, East German Communist Party chief Erich Honecker issued a pledge, in a letter to the Jewish community, to guarantee full religious and cultural freedoms as part of the Crystal Night commemoration. East German news media are also giving extensive coverage to the commoration, sprinkled with numerous claims of a resurgrence of anti-Semitism in the West.

In trying to cope with Crystal Night and what it stands for, Schmidt, West German President Walter Scheel, labor and religious leaders all sought to combine three themes: widespread German guilt; a certain degree of innocence for others; and the lessons that young people must learn from the historical experience.

Schmidt said many Germans disapproved of the events of Kristallnacht and met death for resistance - and that many did not know."

But the truth also is that all of this took place in front of a great many people and many others knew about it immediately," he said. "The truth is that most people kept quiet out of fear; that the churches also fearfully remained silent even though synagogues and churches serve the same god."